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.

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The Promised Land — Part Three

When I finally snapped out of my Britten-induced reverie, I decided to start at the beginning and then work my way forward through the motorcycling continuum.

I headed for the elevator, and rode up to the top floor to scout the joint.

I spotted what looked like early and pioneer cycles on the third floor, towards the front of the building, so on the trip back down I got off there and walked over.

At the entrance to this part of the museum sat a Hildebrandt & Wolfmuller — one of the Ur-motorcycles, and the first to be manufactured and sold in quantities larger than one. The motorcycle, considering that it was produced between 1894 and 1897, is surprisingly sophisticated, with a two cylinder water-cooled 4 stroke of just under 1500 ccs. The fuel tank is more or less where we find it today, situated between the rider and the steering stem.

Other design elements are less sophisticated — the engine’s connecting rods are directly connected to the rear wheel and spin it directly. The valve cams of the engine are also mounted around the hub of the rear wheel — opening and closing the valves as the wheel spins.

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Braking is via wooden shoes.

Really. The brake shoes are convex surfaced wood blocks that are pressed against the surface of the front tire via a handlebar mounted lever and rods.

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Modern riders complaining of brakes with ‘wooden’ feedback are hereby advised to stop their whining and get back to riding.

In the location modern riders associate with headlamps, the Hildebrandt & Wolfmuller had what was essentially its air cleaner — a cold air intake, which the designers saw fit to locate a far distance from the hot cylinders and the hot surface ignition. On the air intake cover, the designers located their trademark, in an early precursor to what we now know as the tank badge.

Because the motorcycle was built in Munich, the company wanted to communicate as many visual elements as possible that would allow customers to associate this bike to the city in which it was made. And because it was made in Munich, home of Octoberfest, there simply had to be a beer.

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It is unlikely, despite the advisability or lack of same of combining these two things, that you will be able to purchase a motorcycle with a beer as part of its branding today.

Something undefinable has clearly been lost.

 

***

 

As I turned to the right away from Munich’s Best, I was greeted by something even more cool — the 1869 Roper Steam Velocipede.

Imagine the love child of one’s favorite steam engined railway locomotive and a pre-safety bicycle hickory framed boneshaker — iron rimmed wooden spoked wheels and all — and your mental picture will be pretty close to the fantastic machine which completely devoured my full visual attention.

Steampunk design is a modern fashion affectation that spends a lot of time attaching copper, brass and wood to things in an attempt to make them look old without having much impact on function.

Every steampunk object you’ve ever seen looks instantly and perpetually ridiculous after you’ve beheld drop dead serious steam-powered engineering.

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Consider for a second that the year is 1868 or so, and nobody’s ever seen a motorcycle. Heck, almost nobody has even imagined one. Yet here, the engineer has independently arrived at most of what we currently recognize as the entire motorcycle design vocabulary — two wheels, with the engine suspended beneath the frame between them. The throttle is operated by a rotating the entire handlebar. The ‘fuel tank’ in the case of a steam engine, is the water reservoir for the boiler, and it, like the Hildebrandt, sits directly behind the steering stem. In one oddball improvisation, the tank doubles as the saddle.

The brass and rivets of the boiler are nothing short of spectacular. The location of the boiler’s compact smokestack begs serious questions. There is almost no visual clutter — there are two steam lines, two cylinders with direct drive, a valve, a single gauge, the hickory backbone frame, and wooden spoked wheels rimmed with iron.

Its minimal, spare and purposeful. Every single part is there for a single reason.

Steampunk that, mofo.

As I was literally standing there shaking my head, one of the museum’s docents walked up.

“Man, that is just a wild thing. Does it run?”

“I know, isn’t it? Well, they say everything in the museum can be running in an hour.

Not so sure about this one, though”.

We were just two guys standing there, letting the same thoughts wash over us of this crazy brass contraption sitting there huffing smoke and hissing. Two guys, both looking at that smokestack, and contemplating its proximity to bits to which some of may have deep personal attachment.

We were just two guys sharing a hearty, knowing laugh.

“So, your telling me there’s a shortage of volunteers to ride this one?”

“Might be.”

“Well, look man. I ain’t scared.”

I gave him one of my cards.

“If they need someone to ride this thing, I’m all in.”

He looked at me like you’d look at someone that you wanted to make sure you didn’t miss too much afterwards.

“Good on ya, dude. I’ll let ’em know.”

 

***

 

Walking over to the early motorcycles collection was simply an embarrassment of motorcycling riches.

Right off, I was greeted by a 1913 Flying Merkel — a big V Twin, looking original, unrestored, its originally bright orange paint patinaed and spotted with rust. It looked like someone had just ridden it in here and just parked it.

Just lovely.

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There were Indians galore.

A 1905 Camelback — lovingly restored in Green. A 1912 TT and a 1922 Scout, both original in their patinaed Indian Red. Both twins looked like well loved and just ridden bikes, with many more miles, many more years and many many more stories left in them.

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Across the room I was greeted by a lovely 1913 Henderson Model B — one of the lovely long tank 4 cylinder models. I have a serious weak spot for these motorcycles as well as for some of their engineering cousins — other 4 cylinder American motorcycles of the nineteen teens and twenties like the Ace and Pierce. These were motorcycles that were designed to be powerful, elegant comfortable transportation before that market was disrupted completely by some guy named Henry from Dearborn, Michigan.

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The Henderson is beautifully designed. It’s floorboards and powerplant make wonderful use of aluminum. Its engine is compact, elegant. Its ignition switch is a lovely little bit of the machinist’s art in brass. The longer one looks, the more one sees.

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***

Walking away from the Henderson, I was greeted by a display area set up to honor the heroes of early 20th century American Boardtrack racing.

The display area is an actual small section of banked board track. The unevenness of that racing surface is something you really do need to see to understand. A little imagination and you can sense the sweep and the speeds attainable on the straights of such an oval.

Or is this just wildlife in its natural habitat?

The bikes there were familiar to me, having spent a lot of time staring at the very same bikes when they were still parked nose to tail in the middle of the floor back at the dairy.

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I’ve written about them before and what I wrote those years ago is really tough to improve on.

There is a small dual display of old enemies – matching Harley and Indian 8 valve board track racers from the earliest part of the last century. These were machines designed for all out speed with no thought for anything else – not steering, not stopping, not even living to race another day, if it meant losing. These machines have fixed carburetors – there is no throttle plate, no slide. The carb is designed to run WFO all the time. There are no brakes whatsoever – no fronts and no rears. What control there was was provided courtesy of an ignition kill switch similar to what was used in the radial rotary engines of the aircraft of the First World War. To modulate speed, one pressed on a piece of spring steel mounted on the handlebar. When the spring grounded on the handlebar, it turned the ignition circuit off, and the bike would slow. Take your finger off the spring and it was WFO again. Truly the earliest manifestation of the digital motorcycle – either on or off, everything or nothing, with nothing available in between.

Think about that for a while, then re-evaluate any tractability concerns you may have about your present motorcycle.

Of Course, those who could know tell me that the racers of the time never used that switch anyway. It’s not surprising that lots of people got killed, on a very regular basis, racing boardtrack.

Those bikes would be rude enough, if that was all there was, but that’s just the beginning. Neither bike has anything you’d really call an exhaust system. The Harley has the exhaust port in its cast iron cylinder head just dumping right into the atmosphere through an oval hole in the casting though which both exhaust valve stems can be seen with no exertion whatsoever. The Indian, always a more refined breed, has a set of slash cut pipes that are maybe 2 and a half inches long – just long enough to turn the flames downward the necessary 60 degrees to keep from setting one’s leathers on fire every second that the sucker was running.

Both bikes are hardtailed, with spring leather saddles like a racing bicycle’s. All of the valvegear – pushrods, rockers and valvestems – is outside the engine cases, and lubricated by a total loss oil pump that was operated by the rider with a plunger.

It’s no surprise that boardtrackers were in one big hurry to get to the checkered flag. Between having your hearing permanently shattered, being sprayed with hot oil, having a leather plank pounded up your ass, and having yellow and blue flames shooting right out the left side of the motor into your lap – getting to the line first was a matter not of competition, but of not wanting to spend one more second astride the beast than one had to, regardless of what anybody else on the track might have been doing at the time in question.

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As I walked slowly around the Indian 8 Valve, doing my customary bob-and-weave dance, jockeying and turning my head to get better views of details like magnetos and hand oil pumps, I became aware of a man roughly half my age doing exactly the same thing.

“My god,” he said to me. “Isn’t it absolutely beautiful?”

I had to agree that it absolutely was.

Spend a little time gazing at the cam chest and the case for drive for the magneto drive, and you will find yourself, like the two of us were, absolutely hypnotized. The aesthetic qualities of these early Indians, especially the racers, are sufficiently compelling to recall one of my favorite characters from Robert Heinlein, who was a research scientist that was essentially held hostage and controlled by letting him gaze briefly into the interior of a piece of rare ancient Chinese porcelain.

“It is my dream to someday own one of these.”

I had to agree that that was a really good dream.

I didn’t want to let on, though, that, especially if me specifically meant one of these 8-valvers, it would be a difficult dream to realize. Very few of these bespoke racing motors were built, and when they have changed hands so has hundreds of thousands of US dollars.

Still, it is a beautiful dream.

 

***

 

I found myself leaving the Barber’s pioneer motorcycle area, headed towards the light coming from the wall of glass that made up the entire rear of the building.

There were lots of things to stop and admire along the way.

A 1916 Henderson Super X Twin. A 1922 Henderson DeLuxe four cylinder It’s easy to see, looking at these bikes why even 75 years later there was still enough enthusiasm for the marque to try to revive it. The bikes had their own unique design vocabulary — they were plain, functional machines that yelled of the muscle they could bring to bear to spin the planet under one’s wheels. The painted rims, the unique through-the-fender springer front end, the avoidance of bright plating — these were no-nonsense rider’s machines, and they still are.

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There were also more compelling machines.

A 1917 Indian Light Twin — powered by an inline mounted boxer twin. For backroads and trail work its hard to imagine a more useful or beautiful motorcycle. Like many such attempts to make small displacement motorcycles in the US, it died in the marketplace fairly quickly.

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There was also a stunningly restored Pierce Arrow Four — executed in bright red paint. Every Pierce I’ve ever seen was painted black — correct or not this one was beautiful. Inspired by the Belgian FN 4 cylinder, the Pierce continued that company’s tradition of building the best engineered and most painstakingly assembled luxury vehicles of their times.

I’ve seen Pierce Arrow automobiles as well as — and I kid you not — some early ‘Traveling Coaches’ — early RVs before the concept had even been born — and all of them speak of the same obsession with quality and fine materials. There is a Pierce Coach in the RV Hall of fame in Indiana that was originally built for Mae West, and I’ve never seen anything with wheels that had so much brass, crystal and porcelain.

This Pierce was no different. Designed in 1908 / 1909, when all motorcycles were singles or twins, with atmospheric inlet valves and leather drive belts, the Pierce was an Inline 4 with a T head and spring closed inlet valves and shaft drive. Its backbone frame that doubles as fuel and oil tanks is still used in modern motorcycles.

There are actually a fair number of mechanical or functional resemblances between that Pierce and my K Bike.

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Decades ahead of its time, it was too expensive for most mortals, and after building barely 500 examples, each at a loss, the Pierce Motorcycle Company declared bankruptcy.

This motorcycle, though, has a halo. It bears looking at for a goodly long time.

 

***

 

After I’d drunk my fill of the Pierce, I walked to the windows at the rear of the museum.

Again, the aesthetic vision of the museum was front and center.

From the glass wall, one could see much of the racetrack — in architectural terms, both the track and the museum had been sited in a way to bring the outside inside. One could only really come to understand the stationary motorcycles behind you, if you watched them driving down Barber’s steeply dropping Corkscrew corner and up the straight behind the museum.

All of us standing at the windows there had the best seats in the house.

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***

 

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

 

Young Bucks, Old Goats, Whistlepigs, and The Barbara Fritchie Motorcycle Classic

Fritchie

I’m not really that into motorcycle competition, with certain noticeable exceptions.

(Go Rossi!)

With that out of the way though, I did have the experience of attending a recent motorcycle competition whose extraordinary enthusiasm, dedication and frankly, downright weirdness only served to underscore just how deep the love of motorized two wheeled motation cuts in the rugged, frankly mad individuals that share it.

And no, I’m not talking about the Iron Butt Rally.

***

Just after I first moved out of Baltimore to Frederick County, Maryland, in the late 1980s, I was making a visit to one of our local motorcycle shops, and saw a poster displayed in a place of honor.

“Barabara Fritchie Motorcycle Classic. July 4th. Frederick Fairgrounds.”

There was red, white and blue. There was fireworks. And there was a Harley Davidson XR sliding sideways at full lock, with a roostertail of dirt pluming out behind.

It looked like a total blast.

And, unsurprisingly, it totally was.

***

I’d called up a riding pal of mine from Baltimore, an artist who was occasionally known to make use of Yamaha XS650 engines in his work.

He told me there were quite a lot of them available due to a counterbalancer that, well, didn’t. I will have to defer to his expertise in that regard.

I also packed up my then young son, and we headed up to the fairgrounds.

We learned a lot that day.

One, most scary, hairy, leathery bikey 1%er looking people are total teddy bears.

Two, there’s a reason it’s easy to get a spectator spot right on the outside rail at the exit of turn three.

Three, there’s also a reason that the race control team all have hearing protection.

Finally, that there was an obvious reason that Rodney Farris, who just ran away from everyone that day, had “Hot Rod” sewn on the back of his leathers. Someone, it seemed, had neglected to tell Rod that the same thingee that one pulled on to open the throttle could also be used to close it. Oh, well.

Net/net was that we had a great time, and were totally hooked on flat track racing. And nothing about being baked in the sun, deafened and rubbed raw from being pelted with ground-up limestone Harley XR roostertails was going to change that.

***

We attended more than a few runnings of The Fricthie over the next couple of years, but somehow got out of the habit.

This year, though, was different.

Monday, the 29th of June saw me catch some absolutely evil gastrointestinal flu bug. By Wednesday, both my wife and daughter had it too. As a result, anything we might have normally done for the July 4th Holiday — camping trip, back yard barbeque, etc — got scrubbed cause we felt too bad to even consider it.

By Friday, I felt about 72% human. Sweet Doris from Baltimore asked, mid-afternoon, what we were doing for the 4th.

“What about The Fritchie?” I asked.

D had been on somewhat of a motorsports kick, and she immediately endorsed the notion.

I hit my computer to get some details.

The primary promoter for the race was Richard Riley, the proprietor of Fredericktowne Yamaha, and one of the nicest, most enthusiastic people I’ve ever met in the business. Richard’s shop has custom-ordered most of my gear and a fair bit of my parts, in addition to mounting way more than my fair share of tires over the years. Can’t say enough about what a friendly and helpful team he leads at Fredericktowne Yamaha / Triumph.

Richard has made it kind of a personal quest to shepherd the Barabara Fritchie Motorcycle Classic through its hundredth year. The Fritchie, it seems, is the Oldest Running Dirt Track Half Mile race held in the US — this year would be the 93rd running.

That it would make it this long seems like a long shot — The Fritchie is a regional race which has to compete with AMA Nationals, both at Hagerstown, MD and DuQuoin, IL, that are held on the days before and the days after our local race. The Big Guns of the AMA Grand National Championship have to focus on points-bearing races, so the Fritchie usually has a field made up of guys from the region — Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania.

This year’s promotional materials claimed #1 Plate Holder Jared Mees was going to be there. If I had any doubts, that sewed it up for me.

The last thing I remembered thinking before I drifted off to sleep was not to forget the package of foam ear plugs that I usually reserved for rock shows.

***

At 3 a.m. that morning, I woke up to a clap of thunder, and the sound of rain hammering on my roof.

I got out of bed and walked into the bathroom to look out my back window. All of my customary gully-washing, toad-strangling adjectives seemed inadequate for what I was seeing out that window.

I went back to bed, slow-thinking that this would all pass by morning.

It didn’t.

When I woke up, it was still hammering down outside. The drainage swales that are graded into the lot around my house looked a lot like the Olympic whitewater course. The heat races were scheduled to flag off at noon, making it hard to see how anyone could possibly race on a ground limestone track today.

By about 11, the rain let up, and my weather reports were indicating a few hours without precip, and a possible afternoon thunderstorm line, which is completely normal for any day in July in central Maryland.

So D and I hopped in the truck, and headed for the Fairgrounds.

***

Upon pulling up to The Great Frederick Fairgrounds, we were greeted by my good buddy Drew Alexander, who was working the gate and taking 20s. This was a good omen, as fun always follows Drew around like a puppy.

As we got up close to the track, Richard was on the track PA system talking about how he’d made the decision in the early morning, based on weather reports, to keep the event on, requiring a great leap of faith for the teams that had driven in in that blinding rain starting early that day.

Richard was starting to seem like somebody with God on his side, because conditions were cloudy, cool, and the guys coming off the track during open practice were all saying that track conditions had never been better.

The racing, as it always is, turned out to be stellar. One of the Expert Twins heat races had something like 6 lead changes before finally being settled. The new Kawasaki 650 vertical twin-based machines were, frankly, cleaning the clocks of folks who were still running the traditional Harley XRs. But the action on the track was tight, competitive, and well before the main event I had managed to shout myself hoarse.

And oh yeah, I forgot my earplugs, again. I guess that’s why they invented Ibuprofen.

Was the racing the whole story, though?

It never is.

***

Richard had arranged the day to honor Eddie Boomhower, an old racer and dealership race team owner who, despite 80 plus years, a new hip and cane, was nattily dressed and regaled the crowd with tales of the race and heroic deeds in days gone by. Boomhower is as much loved for his dedication to the racers his shop supported and in some cases, outright rescued with parts and whole motorcycles required to get to the start line, as he is for his racing exploits.

A new feature during this year’s class was a Boardtracker class. Because, near as I can tell, there hasn’t been a functioning board track race course in the United States since about 1930, anyone that wants to race one of these motorcycles has been all dressed up with nowhere to go. Most boardtrackers are unfairly confined to museums, so even seeing one running is a special treat. Seeing five or six of them whose owners were not only willing to put them at risk by riding them in the anger of competition, but in the filthy conditions of a track comprised of finely ground limestone, is such a rarity that I still can scarcely contain myself.

The bikes that showed for this class were gems. An Excelsior-Henderson Super X. A beautiful Indian with 10 inch straight pipes that dumped straight down at the ground beneath the motorcycle. The Indian even appeared to have prehistoric exhaust power valve, with the copper wire linkage in plain sight leading up to the butterfly inside the front header. A pack of HDs. Great vintage Firestone tires, with their tread patterns made up of the repeated words “NO SKID” formed in rubber. Not a single brake, or throttle in the whole bunch — speed control, such as it was, was accomplished just like in a World War One vintage airplane — if one needed to slow beneath WFO one shorted out the ignition with a bit of spring copper taped to the handlebar.

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Anyone who thinks that history is arbitrary would have been frustrated here. Just as in 1913, the Excelsior-Henderson ran away from the field, followed by the Indian. A full three quarters of a lap back were the pack of Harleys, all within 3 bike lengths of each other. What was then, is now.

***

There was also a vintage class running. This class was awash in beautiful Trackmaster framed Triumphs and Nortons, with a few Yamaha 2-strokes thrown in for aroma. It was as if we’d gone through the wormhole right back into the world of Bruce Brown’s On Any Sunday. If you believe that the racing wars of 1970 were never settled, today was a chance to fight that fight all over again. If you are a Triumph man, Joey Alexander carried your flag to victory again today.

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***

In the 250 Amateur class, something extraordinary was going on.

It’s a darn good thing that flat track racing is not Disneyland. In that amusement park universe, one is awash in signs that say “You Must Be This Tall to Ride”. Brandon Newman, age twelve, looked to be about 43 inches tall, and would have come up a full hand’s width under the required height line.

Altitude is clearly for the weak, based on what Brandon showed all of us this Saturday.

His dad, who was working his pit, had modified the bike with what looked to be a few 1x3s and quite a bit of red duct tape, to raise the pegs high enough to provide Brandon with solid purchase when he was on board.

And getting on board was no trivial task, when you’ve got what looks to be a 25 inch inseam.

For most racers, coming off the line is a two step process.

1) Jam the throttle to the stops

2) When the yellow START light comes on, dump the clutch.

For Brandon, however, this process required a third step, namely hopping up to get fully astride the bike, before executing Steps 1) and 2).

In the chaos of a flat track start, the time that it takes for that third step is decidedly non-trivial.

In his heat race, most of the racers were fully up to race pace at the exit from Turn 2 onto the back straight. For Brandon, the Step 1 delay meant he wasn’t really rolling until the entry into Turn Three.

If you were another competitor in 250 Amateur, or even the 450 Amateur with whom they shared the track, that was absolutely no solace whatsoever.

Because once Brandon got rolling, he was smooth, fast, and treated everything else on the track like they were stationary orange cones on the MSF Training Range.

In his heat, Brandon won his class, so it was on to the final.

In the 250 Final, someone was suffering from too much adrenaline and not enough attention.

At the start light, someone on the row behind Brandon went for the big holeshot. Problem was, he was launching while Brandon was still hopping aboard. Holeshot managed to centerpunch Brandon’s bike and they both went down like a ton of bricks.

Instant Red Flag.

Dad was over the pit wall in a flash.

Holeshot pretty quickly realized his mistake, and helped extricate Brandon from the heap of motorcycles, determined neither of them had any broken human parts, and executed a theatrical handshake that drew a round of applause from the crowd.

Dad Newman, meanwhile, was frantically picking the bike up — the rider was too small to manage same — and straightening some dramatically restyled clutch levers, brake pedals and other odds and ends. Fortunately, Dad’s mechanic chops are as good as Brandon’s rider chops. After a few frantic minutes, Brandon and the bike were back on the line, Holeshot managed to adjust his launch line a tad to the right, and all was good with the world.

Brandon, predictably, proceeded to just cruise around everyone on the track for yet a second time, and take home the class trophy.

I’ll go out on a limb here and predict this is someone you’re likely to see with a Grand National Expert Number as soon as he’s old enough for the regulations to permit it.

***

In Flat Track, it’s all about making and winning The Main. Today’s Main Event would pit Jeremy Higgins, a 23 year old freshly minted National Plate holder riding a 650 Kawasaki, against Dannny Koelsch, a 45 year old who had just come out of retirement, riding the traditional Harley XR.

Problem was, the Whistlepig had other ideas.

As the Expert Twins riders were released from staging onto the starting grid, a Teen-aged Groundhog — referred to in these parts as a Whistlepig — sprinted into the middle of the track, right in front of the start line.

From a tactical standpoint, this is not a good battle for a small mammal to pick.

As someone who should have two groundhog silhouettes painted on the fairing of my K-bike for kills — kills confirmed by my screaming passengers — I can tell you this does not end well.

So, with small giggles from the crowd slowly turning to hysterical laughter, we were treated to the entire course control staff being out-maneuvered by one very freaked out groundhog.

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Richard Riley — working the PA and trying to fill the unplanned gap — related a tale of the DuQuoin mile, where a similar incident two years ago had resulted in the untimely demise of one racoon. A year later, the accused in that Racoon-icide had been presented with a Daniel Boone-style coonskin cap during the pre-race Riders’ Meeting.

I’m not aware of any method available to make stylish fashion accessories out of Groundhogs, so we were going to require another solution.

Under significant stress, the track control team had ganged up on the little feller, and had used sheer numbers to corral him. In victory, one of the corner workers — receiving a huge round of applause — carried the groundhog by the tail across the track and into the center of the infield.

The corner worker sat Whistles down in the grass — whereupon he sprinted, as fast as 3 inch long legs can go — right back toward the track.

Hysterical laughter ensued.

Fortunately, the Frederick Fairground’s primary purpose is to hold the fair for our still actively agricultural county every fall — replete with facilities to care for horses, cows, swine and every other farm animal under the sun.

While the corner team was replaying their Whistlepig Roundup Game, some thoughtful individual sprinted off to one of the nearby display barns to get a plastic horse watering tank. After much consternation, Whistles was recollected, and subjected to the minor indignity of being confined under the tank for the 5 minutes or so it would take to complete the main event.

With the Offender thus confined, it was time to race.

***

The main was kinda anticlimactic. Higgins got the holeshot and that was all she wrote. The suitability of the Ninja 650 Twin engine for flat track, right out of the box, is one of those surprises that keeps the sport interesting. An XR can be tuned to be faster, but it’s work where the Kawi is just gas-and-go. Koelsch, having made maximum effort in the heat, had come up with nothing left in the tank, and came in a fairly distant second.

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***

After having not been to the Fritchie for more than a few years, I’m awfully glad I was there. The weather and conditions were perfect, the racing excellent, and the crowd, as always, was a people watcher’s feast. My thanks to Richard Riley and team for promoting and running a perfect event — one that really is the high point of every Fourth of July in Frederick Maryland. If you’re anywhere in the MidAtlantic region, don’t wait until the 100th to check it out.

Dizzyland for Gentleman Motorcyclists

I just returned from a family vacation.

I spent a week under canvas in the Pisgah National Forest in the mountains of Western North Carolina. My wife, youngest son and I took our simple folding tent trailer to a lovely wooded federal campground with zero bars of service on anyone’s cel phone.

We used the camp as a base of operations to art tour, see music, eat and drink our way around Asheville, which was very civilized and lots of fun.

We also resolved to spend some time in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, as we Shamiehs have been touring each and every one of these National Treasures, and as one of The Great Parks east of the Mississippi, we were honor bound.

But as we motored in our white work pickup towards Cherokee, something unpredictably and inappropriately bikey spontaneously occurred.

We were rolling through Maggie Valley, North Carolina, when I saw a small roadside sign.

“The Wheels Through Time Museum.3 Miles Ahead on Right.”

“Oh,” I said, “This Place is Legendary. Can we stop and walk around?”

My wife and son looked at each other with the face of recognition that they were about to bear witness to me in the abject depths of Moto-depravity. But it was vacation, and everyone is just supposed to roll with it and have fun whenever and wherever it occurs.

It was agreed without hesitation that we should.

We rolled across the bridge into the place, and tried to find room for our Ram Truck amongst the Myriad Harleys.

I walked briskly up the ramp and into the facility.

A nice gentleman who was sitting on the porch greeted us, welcoming us to the place. I was a little wild eyed, breathing hard, and walking kind of fast, so I didn’t pay much attention to Dale Walksler, whose marvelous motorcycle collection this is.

So Dale, I’m genuinely sorry and embarrassed that I was less than social, but I was a little overexcited.

I’m sure you know how that goes.

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The Wheels Through Time advertises itself as ‘The Museum That Runs”.  The nice lady that sold me my ticket said “Everything in Here is Made in America, and everything runs.” When you have a HD service area that looks like this:

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which appears to have at least two cylinder barrels, two cylinder heads, and two pistons of every engine Harley Davidson has ever produced, and your spare parts supply has so many original OEM pistons of 1930’s vintage in Original factory boxes that you sell them for Museum Swag, keeping them running doesn’t appear to be as big a problem as it might be for the rest of us.

This is in no way to minimize what an extraordinary accomplishment and amount of work that represents.

And is in no way to even imply that Harley Davidsons are the only motorcycles Dale treasures.

There is simply too much in The Wheels — motorcycles, memorabilia, artwork, automobilia, and just plain weird shit — to even think of covering it all in anything short of a  full length book.

But I will share a few things that caught my eye, or in some cases tugged at my heartstrings. Other things might catch yours.

One of my fellow Internet BMW Riders has strongly urged me to go to Dale’s if the chance ever presented itself. I don’t remember who you are, but thank you anyway.

And if you ever get the chance, and you love motorcycles and motorcycling, you should too.

Oh, and Dale, if you can forgive my bad manners, and would like me to write that book to catalog the museum, please let me know. It would be a labor of love.

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This 1903 Indian, which is all original, may well be the oldest running Indian Motorcycle in existence.  Using a dry cell battery for ignition, it has won a race for 100 plus year old motorcycles at the Barber Motorcycle Museum Vintage Festival multiple times. Try and imagine what it was like to have to go — likely to your drugstore  — to obtain a new dry cell and a can of ‘petroleum spirits’ to get ready for a ride.

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The 1903’s Younger Brother — this one, I believe is a 1909 — is also something to be stared at for quite some time.

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This Indian, which is believe is a boardtrack racing sidecar outfit, is also exquisite.

Dale has a series of early 1900s American Fours — Hendersons, a Pierce Arrow, a pair of Aces — any one of which are pretty enough to take your breath away. Taken together, its enough to have you calling for medical assistance. The Pierce, especially, is a wonder of unique design and engineering.

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I make no bones about being a BMW guy. Accordingly, anything with a boxer engine will get my attention. During the Second World War, the US War Department — the precursor to our Department of Defense — placed orders with both Harley Davidson and Indian motorcycles to produce shaft driven bikes that would be able to function on the same desert battlefields as the BMW M75s and Zundapps that had been outperforming the US’s chain driven military motorcycles.  Harley’s response to the challenge was the XA, a boxer-engined shaft drive motorcycle. The Wheels Through Time has several XAs as well a few things that were made out of XAs.

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This one is bone Army Stock.

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This one is full civilian custom, right down to the chromed springer front end.

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And this one has been transformed into a race car, where it appear to be entirely comfortable and like that was it’s intended engineering purpose.

Indian’s answer to the same challenge was their Model 841. The 841’s configuration was a transversely mounted, 90 degree V-twin with shaft drive. This configuration would be made famous by MotoGuzzi about 25 years later, but all of the Guzzi’s ingredients were present and accounted for in the 841. Harley Davidson’s XAs are rare — they were built in limited numbers and deployed into combat theaters in even more limited numbers. In contrast, the Indian 841 is barely more than a rumor — there was a short run of machines that were built and purchased, but none were ever deployed by the military. Seeing one is rare — a complete, unrestored one that runs….

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In between the hundred of bikes are — heresy! — a few cars. My first car was a 1971 Cadillac Sedan with an 8.0 liter V8, so I have a soft spot for this 1930 Cadillac V-16 Coupe. The motor is nothing short of awesome, the style of the body is elegance defined, and anything with a rumble seat and this kind of potential for velocity had to be all kinds of fun.

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I said there would be weird shit, and there is weird shit in spades.

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There is a Harley Engine in this spaceship. I’m completely bereft of any ideas as to what I would tell the motor officer if he pulled me over driving this thing.

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This is the most unusual tandem bicycle I’ve ever seen.  When one considers that fact that both sets of handlebars are linked together and steer the bike, so that both riders need to agree and coordinate where they want to go, all of a sudden it becomes a bit more obvious why you and I haven’t seen more of these.

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Weirder still is this Harley Davidson XSIS — Xtremely Stationary Ice Saw. Necessity and an HD are the mother of invention.

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On a related note, and only marginally less weird is this Indian-powered ‘MotorToboggan’, which may well have been the world’s first snowmobile.

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And holding down the perpetually weird, not-sure-if-it-wants-to-be-a-car-or-a-bike category,  A Ner-a-Car feet forward, step through motorcycle.

The second floor of the museum is devoted largely to motorcycle competition.

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This pair of racing leathers that belonged to Cal Rayborn stopped me in my tracks. Cal was one of the American racing greats who we lost too soon. Standing before Cal’s skins, I’ll admit  I may have become a little verklempt.

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One of Scotty Parker’s AMA Championship winning Harley Davidson XR 750 dirtrackers.

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And finally, one of the few Harley’s that I’ll admit being attracted to — the XLCR Café Racer. This bike is kind of like a distant cousin to my R90S — the same DelOrto accelerator pump carburetors, bikini fairing, and aero tailsection, Milwaukee style, as opposed to Berliner Style. An all-for-speed pose with solid, heavy motorcycles. Great fun.

By the end of the too short hours we spent there, I had to search out my family, who were enjoying themselves far more than they thought they would. My artist wife Doris was in love with several antique photographs and advertising art, and my son Finn, who is just dipping his toe in the motorhead water was finding all sorts of obscure gadgets and iron to ogle.

The pictures I’ve provided here barely scratch the surface of the Wheels Through Time’s extensive collection. The more you know about bikes, especially bikes made before 1930, the more amazing the collection and its correct period staging will become. I heartily encourage a motorcycle trip down to the Great Smokies, and plan for a day with my bike-addled friends in Maggie Valley.