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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Wrenchin’ with Nixon

9

There was a point in my life when the shit I didn’t know vastly outweighed the shit I did know.

That probably isn’t earthshattering news.

Heck, I can even think of a few people who might opine that those days never ended, but we’re not going to get hung up on their negative vibe, man.

As a puppy motorcyclist — bright eyed, empty headed, and 22 years old — the things I didn’t know about motorcycling were manifold and encyclopedic in scope.

I didn’t know anything about motorcycling history.

Anything more complicated than Honda and Harley-Davidson were utterly wasted on me. Motoguzzi? FN? Sarolea? The Vincent? Aermacci? MV Agusta? Velocette? Huh?

I knew less about motorcycle engineering. Telescopic Forks? Roller and plain bearings? Overhead Cams? Twin Swirl Heads? Frame rigidity and controlled flex? Progressive linkages? Air cooling? Singles, Twins, Fours and Sixes? You talkin’ to me?

My knowledge of motorcycle competition was even more miniscule. To nothing and more than nothing we added nothing to a higher power. I thought that Glen Curtiss only made airplanes. Cal Rayborn? Kenny Roberts? Who? Geoff Duke? A movie star? Giacomo Agostini? Maybe an Italian restaurant?

Everybody’s got to start somewhere, and I started with a blank sheet of paper and the sound of crickets.

I hope I can be forgiven.

Its not like we Americans provide a great deal of public respect and adulation to what should be our motorcycle racing heros. Bike race winners aren’t on the evening news or the front page of the paper the way NASCAR and Indianapolis winners are. Even today, the number of American competitors in the Global MotoGP championships is a tiny minority, will the majority coming from Europe and elsewhere.

Why kill all these electrons to drive home the point of how dumb I was?

Don’t make me get ahead of myself.

***

How dumb I was starts to explain how anyone might think it was a good idea to buy a 1973 Honda CB750 Four that someone else has tried to hack and modify into an American Style Cruiser.

The bike had a Two Inch Overstock Extended Fork, Kerker Four Into One Exhaust, K&N Pod Air Filters, and a stepped cruiser saddle. It was working way too hard to be cool. That Honda — my first street motorcycle — was a magnificent motor wrapped in total, utter garbage. Every single one of those modifications had made the bike less ridable by degrading its handling and throttle response. It was pretty cool with the revs up in a straight line, but everywhere else it was a nightmare.

That nightmare was on big-screen display every time I entered a corner. The extended front end had moved the already high center of gravity higher and the weight distribution further rearward. The OEM shock absorbers, which were never that good to begin with, were no longer even phoning it in with 40,000 miles on them and under these less-than-optimum conditions. Once leaned in the bike was a pogoing, wandering mess on which it was absolutely impossible to maintain any kind of cornering line.

I may have only known one tick more than nothing, but if I wanted to survive the next year or two I knew I needed to get that motorcycle some shocks that worked.

So I went looking for some shocks.

***

In the early 80s, me and my Honda shared an apartment with some of my buds in Cockeysville, Maryland.

One day, while headed north on York Road, I saw a fairly loud red, white and blue sign out of my peripheral vision. I turned my head to see “Gary Nixon Enterprises — Motorcycle Parts and Performance.”

I ran up the road until I found a safe place to turn around, went back to the shop, kickstanded it, removed my helmet and went inside.

The shop seemed a little threadbare.

I remember lots of beige painted drywall, a few posters, a few fairly sparsely populated glass display cases. There was a set of red racing leathers on the wall, and then there was that guy.

My host was fairly small of stature, with greying red hair and a seriously square set of jaw.

He got up out of his chair and walked to the counter.

“Help you?”

His jaw didn’t seem to move when he talked.

I told him I was looking for some replacement shocks for my CB750.

He said he had just the thing, and named a price which I knew to be well below reasonable. I asked to see them, and he went back into the stockroom to fetch them.

While he was out of the room, I started to let my attention wander a little just to get a feel for the joint. There were pictures here and there of racebikes — local kids on dirtbikes, and some more serious-seeming road racers.

I looked back at the leathers on the wall. They were bright red, with ‘Nixon’ emblazoned across the back — in perfect 70s style, the ‘I’ in Nixon had a big star for the dot. Upon closer inspection, it seemed clear they had been cut off the original occupant.

There was one more thing that took a long time to compute. The leathers had a fairly large, abraded hole, pretty much right where the left buttock of the user would have been.

I was having a ‘Mr. Jones Moment’. I was pretty sure something was happenin’, but I didn’t know what it is, yo. The hardness, the perverse humor, the fairinged and sponsor stickered road racers in the picture…

“Some shit, huh? Was wearing those on the Kawasaki Triple, flat out on the front straight at Daytona, when the two stroke sumbitch siezed right up. Slid on my ass almost the whole length of the straight. Ha!”

His jaw, Gary Nixon’s jaw, definitely didn’t move when he talked.

There was a reason for that, which you can find told in any history of American Motorcycle Racing. This was Grand National Champion Gary Nixon, one of the most competitive, gifted and unlucky men ever to grab the bars and twist a throttle.

But to my younger self, whose Native American name was “Sound-of-Crickets”, this was just a friendly guy in a bike shop — a lively soul like many more I would meet around bikes. I had no clue this was the equivalent of buying your baseball bat from Mickey Mantle.

Cheep. Cheep. Cheep.

***

The shocks that Gary produced were Boge Mulhollands. Unbeknowst to me — OK, everything was unbeknownst to me — these were the best shocks made for that CB at the time. They were fully rebuildable, valving could be adjusted, and all the roadracers and canyon hotshoes of the day had these on their single cam Hondas. All I knew was that they cost a great deal less than the Honda dealer’s OEM shock, and they were going to do the job.

I paid the man, pumped his hand and thanked him for his help.

When I got to the curb, I looked at the bike, the box in my hands, my luggage rack and my collection of bungie cords. These things were heavy, expensive and I didn’t really like the thought of them rubber banded out there.

“Four bolts”, I thought.

“Easiest way, best way. I’ll just eat ’em here”.

I yanked out the tooklit and had the street side bolts yanked in two minutes. I pryed the former shock absorber off and replaced it with one of the Boges. Just as I was starting to tighten the first bolt, Gary came striding out the store’s front door.

“Jeeeesus Christ, kid, you can’t do that here. If my neighbors see this they’ll run my ass out of the neighborhood”.

Gary scanned left and right up and down the block, seeing nothing. He quickly checked my state of progress.

“Ah shit… gimme that 17”.

I passed him the wrench and proceeded to tighten my side back up with an adjustable I’d added to the stock kit.

Gary had his shock off in significantly less than the little time it had taken me.

We both wrapped up at roughly the same time. One chopped Honda now had two gloss black, serious business road racing shocks.

***

I can tell you that those Boges absolutely transformed that motorcycle. Given its extended wheelbase, it was never going to be a roadracer. Although I began to think of it as more of a streamliner railway locomotive, it did absolutely do exactly what it was told in corners from that point forward.

***

That was many bikes ago, but my understanding and love for cornering started that day, twisting wrenches in a parking space on the side of York Road with Gary Nixon.

As many years of riding and love for motorcycles has gone by, I’ve come to understand just who Nixon the racer was, and his importance and heroic stature in the sport we both loved. The original ‘Never Say Die’ competitor — fighting through staggering injuries, fickle motorcycle factory teams that didn’t do right by him, and even some bad race officiating that cost him a title he had won on the track.

I saw Gary many years later along with a host of other racers out at MidOhio, when BMW sponsored the ‘Battle of the Legends’ series. One of the other racers was talking to me and said, “BMW tells us that this is an exhibition. He..” pointing to Nixon, “…laughs at them every time they say that”.

Nixon was, without doubt, a legend and a racing hero. But that day, sitting on a curb, he was just another motorcyclist, no ego, no barrier, just a bud helping another bud out.

I’ve met lots of would be heros that turned out, upon familiarity, to be first class creeps

Gary Nixon wasn’t one of those.