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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Pioneers, Trackers, Roadracers and Heros

Most motorcycle trips inevitably involve riding a motorcycle.

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

 

***

 

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

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

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

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

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

This would be another one of those.

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

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

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

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

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

 

***

 

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

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

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

The Mountain Inside The Mountain

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

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

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

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

 

***

 

Cooper’s Other Rock

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

Quite

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

 

***

 

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

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

 

***

 

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

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

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

The First of Many Trackers

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

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

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

“I’d love to have one of these.”

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

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

Fingers crossed.

 

***

 

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

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

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

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

 

***

 

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

Maybe It’s Just Because They Fit There

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

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

It’s an image that’s hard to shake.

So yeah, I like Dream 50s

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

The Honda RC161

Semi Downdrafts and DOHC

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

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

1914 Harley Davidson Pocket Valve Racer

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

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

A Motor To Go Racing With

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

 

***

 

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

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

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

 

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

Quite The Crankshaft, Indeed

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

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

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

A Unique Kind of Unit Construction

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

***

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

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

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

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

The Ace

One of William’s Motorcycles

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

Another One of William’s Motorcycles

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

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

 

***

 

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

 

Half a Harley Mechanic

I don’t know about you, brothers and sisters, but lately I’ve been finding myself doing more than a couple of things I was pretty sure I would never do.

I feel like Rolling Physics Problem is inexorably constructing its own cosmology — its unique internal laws of its own energy, space and time. And one of our foundational laws of time is that the future simply can’t be foreseen.

This means a lot of things surprise me, when perhaps they really shouldn’t.

I’m really coming to embrace that it pays to be flexible.

 

***

 

Having firmly established the complete absence of validity of anything I might have ever thought about my future self and existence, I was pretty sure one of those things I would never do would be to own a Harley Davidson motorcycle.

Now don’t get me wrong, fellow riders. Don’t assume any malice or deficiency of character where none exists.

I’d love to have one of those lovely XR1200s that buyers ignored from a few years back. All of the V-Rod series of motorcycles, with their Porsche-designed engines, were one chassis and suspension transplant away from being really compelling motorcycles.

I’d like to own a VR1000 or an XLCR, but as flexible as I might be, I am also short of disposable income.

And cheap. A deadly combination for a Gentleman of Fine Discerning Motorcycle Tastes.

All that aside though, nothing HD currently sells from the showroom floor really does anything for me, at least not enough to sign a note on one.

So I just didn’t see myself owning one.

And if you, on the other hand, totally dig the machinery that Harley Davidson makes, and how it makes you feel, that’s cool, man, and I can totally see why you feel that way.

But it doesn’t do that to me, so I just couldn’t see it.

And not being able to envision owning one, meant that all of the Bar and Shieldy goodness that is how these motors work and how one tends to them had been unexplored blank space in the universe inside my head.

I had absolutely zero interest, cause it was information I was simply never going to use. End.Of. Story.

 

***

 

Whereupon I purchased my son Finn’s Buell Blast.

On only the thinnest of graspable technicalities could one argue that the Blast was somehow not a Harley Davidson. If, however, your thesis was that The Blast was a half of one, then you …had nothing.

Half a Harley?

Those that do know about such things claim that the Blast and a Sportster share no common engine parts, but the eye tells a different tale. In development Mr. Buell did what the HD-owned Buell and Harley itself always did — start with the bits they already had on hand and put them together in different combinations and improved them from there.

The lower engine case is cast aluminum, and shares the shape and basic dimensions of the modern 1000 cc Sportster motor. Where the Sportster has two cylinder base plates machined for a pair of air cooled cylinders, the Blast case simply has one — the front one, to be specific, inclined at approximately the same angle as the Sportster’s V. The back one…well, it’s gone. Or not there yet. Or something.

Considering that Harley had not made one of its own singles since 1934 — Aermacchis and DKWs badged as HD’s don’t count, ’cause I say so — this was a pretty traditional way of solving the company’s small displacement problem. And, for good measure, not even an original way — BMW, Vincent, Indian, Ducati and no doubt countless others, just buttoned up one or two of whatever jugs they had lying around at the time to make a single and twin of the same basic engine architecture and parts.

Buell being Buell, they had improved the stock components for better flow and balance and anything else they could hot rod, but the basic tooling was the same. Where the 1000cc stock Sportster twin makes something like 52 HP, the 500cc Blast Single makes 34.

So anyway, as the new proud owner of Half a Harley, I was going to have to play catch up on how this corner of the universe did things.

 

***

 

Before Finn and the Blast departed for College Park, I’d paid dearly for all of my hard fought Harley ignorance.  I’d figured out oil changes and spark plugs, brake service and tires. The bike had even received some small degree of farkelage, with some actual rear-view mirrors, a wired-in mini Battery Tender, and a set of soft bags.

Post decamp a soaking wet and shivering cold Finn had rediscovered gravity   and had bent some small stuff that had to be replaced. Finn had also said while the bike was on its side it had been spitting out small chunks of black rubber from under the tank. I was pretty sure I knew what those were.

So I became determined to further confuse Harley Davidson of Frederick, who are likely starting to wonder why my R90S is always parked in their lot. While there I picked up a shift lever toe peg kit, and a set of the rubber gas tank isolators, which had been visibly trending toward entropy when Finn and I had been in there last.

When I got home I looked at the new shift peg, which, in a major failure of design, didn’t have a wrench flat on it anywhere — kinda hard to torque or detorque, for that matter, when there is nothing to hold onto. Given that the one on the bike had been gravitationally customized, and is supposed to be secured by red LockTite, I imagined a part that might need extreme externally provided motivation in order to be removed. A butane torch and Vice-Grips went onto the tool pile.

Unlike many technicians, I elected to actually read the documentation that was inside the parts bag. The installation procedure stated that the enclosed peg was a retrofit repair part for several models which it listed. The procedure went on to say that if, however, it was to be installed on a Blast, that the hole in the shift lever was 1/8 too shallow, and that a 5/16s tap would be required to install it.

I’ve got a lot of tools.

None of them, however, are taps.

I placed my selected tools, new parts and swingarm service stand into my wagon, and headed for College Park via a short pit stop in the hand tool department of my local Lowes.

 

***

 

When I got down to Finn’s place I gave The Lad a big hug, and then he helped me unload the mobile bike shop.

He picked the bike up off the sidestand, and grabbed a handful of front brake while I positioned the swingarm stand and levered the bike up in the air to render it ready for wrenching.

As a BMW guy, I now fully appreciate just what a luxury a bike with a center stand really is.

I’d made the same trip down a few weeks previous to help Finn replace a leaky carburetor boot that was causing some wonky running. All of that work looked like it had stood up and kept fasteners tight, which isn’t always a given with this motorcycle.

I got down on one knee to inspect the shifter peg which had been customized by Finn’s little run-in(s) with too much gravity and not enough friction. He had done a pretty passable job of unbending the bent — looked pretty serviceable actually, to an old cheap man’s eye. It had looked inexplicably rough — the shift rubber was split and had been neatly ziptied back on — before this had happened, so I had no problem with fixing it right.

It was an Internet style laugh out loud moment when I realized that the existing shift peg was actually backed out about a thread and a half. I grabbed it with my hand and it moved. Looked like I wasn’t going to need that torch. Actually, I guess we were more lucky it hadn’t vibrated out and fallen off.

I passed Finn the vicegrips and had him back the bent part the rest of the way off. He handed it to me when he’d finished and I placed it beside the newly purchased part.

The old and new parts were identical — even in the threaded part of the peg. The part we were replacing, therefore, was not the original factory peg, which was about 1/8 inch — remember the documentation? — or about a thread and a half coarse threads shorter. Looks like someone hadn’t received the memo about tapping the extra threads in the shift arm.

It also looks like when Blasts fall over – which apparently happens a lot – they land on their shift peg, with consistently repeatable results.

I chucked up my nice new Dewalt tap, and gently cut two more threads into the shift arm. A little LockTite, a little ViceGrips and we could cross this little problem off the list.

That wrapped, I pulled the tank vent and tank cover, which is held on place by a single bolt, and by the oil dipstick, which sits in the oiltank in top of the frame just behind the steering head.

With the plastic inner tank laid bare, I removed what little was left of the rubber tank mounts — little rubber cylinders that slide over steel rods that protrude from either side of the steering head to position and retain the tank.

The new tank mounts needed a little more coercion than I would have preferred, but they eventually were persuaded into place. The tank cover and vent went back on, and the Blast came back off the work stand.

I swung a leg over, turned the key and lit ‘er up. The Blast fired on the second stroke, and responded well to throttle, spinning up smartly on the gas. I let her idle for about thirty seconds, and then blipped ‘er again to make sure the goofy thermal choke disengaged.

For what it’s worth, if anyone knows of a good bodge to replace the thermal auto-choke on one of these bikes with a good old fashioned choke knob and cable, please speak to me.

Because Finn’s apartment complex is still mostly empty, the parking garage is also mostly empty. The uppermost floor, where we were working, was completely empty. Really large unbroken expanses of empty concrete pavement make certain motorcyclist behaviors more likly to occur, so they occurred here.

I took a couple of large throttle opening runs up and down the floor, being somewhat surprised the little beast would lighten up the front wheel with a little leading throttle and some clutch modulation, and drinking in the noise in the semi-enclosed space.

I rolled the bike back into Finn’s space, leaning it onto the sidestand, and killswitched it.

It was time to head for the diner down the street, and get some breakfast food for dinner and joke and cut up some.

 

***

 

Back at work the next morning, I reflected on how comfortable I was becoming working on the Blast.

Maybe this Half a Harley Mechanic gig wasn’t so bad after all. Check back to see how I feel about it after a primary case oil change and clutch adjustment next spring.

Right about then an incoming text lit up my phone.

It was Cam — my daughter Wallis’ boyfriend.

He was asking for help cleaning up the carbs and tuning up a 2006 Kawasaki ZZR600 he’d picked up on Craiglist a few weeks back. It was a carburetted motorcycle that had spent most of its life parked, so it likely needed some pilot jets, oil, air and fuel filters, and some spark plugs. Cam had called up our local Kwacker dealer and they’d asked for almost as much for the work as he’d spent on the bike.

I went over the parts he would need, and told him to bring the ZZR by when they came in.

Looked like I’d have half a Kawasaki mechanic to round out my half a Harley mechanic by this time next week.

 

The Pits

After a very full Friday at the Barber Vintage Festival, hotel sleep, usually a problem, was, well, not.

Saturday morning I woke up when I woke up, a pleasant change from a life overfull with clocks and alarms.

The view out my window was another misty morning — the road to the Barber’s gate looked almost like a dream, except my dreams don’t have their traffic directed by Sheriffs with Authority Gold Wings.

I got cleaned up, geared up, and went downstairs to the Hampton’s lobby, looking for a cup of coffee and some Mini-wheats.

As the coffee kicked in, and I gradually became more aware of my surroundings, I realized I was sharing my breakfast bar with a half-dozen or so folks nattily attired in the uniform of Team Britten New Zealand, resplendent with images of the Silver Fern and The Southern Cross.

I resolved not to intrude, much as I might have wanted to. They likely needed their coffee as much if not more than I did.

As it turned out, I’d see more of them later.

 

***

 

I rolled the LT around the Barber perimeter road just to get a feel for what was happening, and decided that the Racing Pit area was where it was at, man.

I rolled up to one of the two security personnel working the west gate and asked whether I could get in.

“Sure, dude. But its foot traffic only. Find a place to park — plenty of spots up in that direction — and stop at the tent up by the trolley stop to sign a release and get a wristband. Then you’ll be good to go.”

Just what I needed, a third wristband to add to my Ace Corner Festival wristband, and my weekend admission Museum Wristband. WTF, what’s one more wristband? How to get a glove back on that hand was a problem that could wait till later.

So I headed up the ring road until I found a relatively flatter, harder looking spot, with other members of the LT’s tribe.

DSCN2609

I saw a lot of motorcycles over the days that I was on the road, but these two Honda Z50s had the Blue Ribbon Cute Prize completely sewn up. They also get some sort of Honorable Mention for the Motorcycle I Most Seriously Considered Stuffing In My Top Case And Making A Run For It Award.

One release form and one wristband later, I was flagged in by the same security guy and walked down the hill and into the Barber’s Racing Pit area.

Barber’s Pits are laid out in three broad avenues that are terraced down the front of the hillside. One gets the impression of scope, of scale, of a well-considered and well thought out organization.

In the morning mist that was stubbornly hanging in there, the first pit lane avenue seemed to stretch into the distance, into the haze, and right out of sight.

 

***

 

After a very full day roaming the collections of the Barber Motorsport Museum, one could be forgiven for somehow thinking you’d damn near seen everything that ever motorcycled — that the jug o’ wonder was down to fumes, mate.

You’d also be utterly, completely wrong.

If motorcycles sitting on pedestals, perfectly lit reveals them as art objects, as sculpture, there is a whole dimension of them that is left not even hinted at in that environment.

The motorcycle is only fully realized in motion, and preferably in a motion that takes the dynamics and physics of the thing out to their yawning limits, to that place where the slow motion dance of the contact patches just makes time itself stand stock still.

In the racing pit at the Barber Vintage Festival, that element is everything.

If what sits in the Museum are airbrushed pin-up girls, the bikes in the Racing Pits are straight-up hardcore racebike porn.

There are historic and classic racing motorcycles in the pits at Barber that are so quirky or weird that they are too rare for this museum or any museum. Those bikes, though, are out here with tanks full of Sunoco race fuel, fully safety wired, and sitting on a set of starting rollers, ready to rock.

These are motorcycles that get to live.

 

***

 

Walking down the high line of the Barber pit, I came to a team with a soft spot for Harley Davidson KR Flathead racebikes.

It wasn’t a small spot, either.

DSCN2614

These guys had enough bikes and equipment that they needed a full size semi to get to the races.

Each one of these KRs — built between 1952 and 1970 — is a treasure.

I counted 8.

This KRTT, the roadracing variant, is as elemental and purposeful a racebike as you will ever see.

DSCN2615

 

This isn’t 3 time Grand National Champion Joe Leonard’s racebike.

DSCN2617

It’s easy to tell, because all Joe’s bikes were hardtails. But the owners of this motorcycle clearly were fans.

DSCN2616

Joe seems to have returned the favor by being a fan of their motorcycle.

 

***

 

Right across from HDKRLandia was a truck from Colorado Norton.

These guys do nice work.

DSCN2611

There are people who believe that the Norton Commando is the most beautiful motorcycle that ever rolled on two wheels.

DSCN2613

I got no bone to pick with those people.

 

***

 

I’m prone to expressing opinions which are not widely held.

So no one here will be shocked when I do it again.

Most custom motorcycles do absolutely nothing for me.

The skill to design and construct a motorcycle which both effective as a motorcycle and fully pleasing to the eye is not as common a skill as most custom motorcycle builders believe it is. Many custom bikes do not improve the stock motorcycle on which they are based, while a small minority are actually so offensive as to be cause for the averting of ones pained eyes.

For the many custom motorcycles which add nothing to the art, there are, fortunately, that very small percentage that achieve things that no production motorcycle ever dreamed of.

The racing pits are not where you’d expect to see such motorcycles, but the Barber Vintage Festival is full of pleasant surprises.

 

***

 

There was only one Indian Larry.

Unlike a lot of Reality Show characters, Larry was simply real — there were no layers to what you saw on TV.

Larry built bikes that were meant to be ridden, and that appealed to him.

He had an artist’s eye, and an engineer’s hand. Brought up on a childhood diet of Von Dutch and Big Daddy Roth, Larry’s bikes were Choppers in a strictly old school sense — the goal was light weight, stripped, elemental design, big power and handling to take advantage of it. Like the original bobber and chopper guys of the late 1940s, if a part didn’t do something important, it came off. Fenders, electric starters, primary drive covers all got canned in the quest for the most motor paired with the least everything else. Everything left after that got metalflaked, flamed, pinstriped or polished.

Larry’s motorcycles, unlike most choppers, never had stretched or raked front ends, because such bikes were built for looks, and wouldn’t corner in the mountains where Larry loved to ride.

Since his passing, Larry’s shop continues to be run by his former partners.

I’ve spoken with Larry’s Men at The Big Timonium Bike Show. They run the shop from my old neighborhood in Brooklyn, and they seemed like standup guys, that took their work seriously, and seemed to take their fun pretty damn seriously too.

It seems that at 10:30 in the morning or so in front of their easy-up in the Barber pits, that they must have been taking their fun pretty seriously fairly recently.

DSCN2618

I have to interpolate their fun because while this beautiful, elemental old school New York style chopper — called Movin On — and several of its mates were on display, Larry’s Men were most assuredly not. While many of their compadres in the pits may have still been a little slow, these guys were no show.

It did give me a chance to enjoy the bike’s craftmanship — there were subtle question marks either cut into or engraved on every piece of metal — disk rotors, cylinder heads — and the exquisitely rich paint and stripe work. Even the saddle wanted to make a statement.

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It was a message on which Larry and I could wholeheartedly agree.

 

***

 

The percentage of fabricated or aftermarket components on custom bikes range from shocks and an exhaust to absolutely everything.

This exquisite beast, designed and constructed by Analog Motorcycles of Gurnee, Illinois, is an absolutely everything motorcycle.

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The 1949 Indian Scout was the last new design introduced by the original Indian Motorcycle Company. Indian needed a lighter sporting motorcycle to compete with the then dominant Triumphs, Nortons and BSAs. Indian actually purchased a company — Torque Engineering — to obtain the rights to produce this engine, which was a two cam, pushrod OHV twin of just under 500cc. Take a look at the pushrod tubes, which are splayed wide on either side of the cylinder block, and you’ll see that this engine was not what you probably first thought it was.

The 1949 Indian Scout was met in the marketplace with resounding “Meh”. By 1953 the Springfield Indian plant was closed for good.

My focus on the Scout’s engine is significant, because that uncharacteristically non-V-for-an-Indian twin is the only bit remaining from the 1949 Scout in the motorcycle that Analog calls “The Continental Scout”.

Absolutely everything else, from the Trackmaster frame, to the one-off aluminum fairing, tank and seat, the paintwork, TZ750 wheels and the quadruple leading shoe racing drums is designed and fabricated by Analog, and bespeaks an artist’s eye. The Continental Scout is a beautiful cohesive whole that is far more aesthetically appealing and far more functional than anything that ever came out of the Wigwam.

 

***

 

I have never owned a MotoGuzzi.

I probably should have.

This is the stated position of several of my motorcycling family and motorcycling friends.

The synopsis of their insistent goadings is that the Guzzi is an elemental mechanical animal, that possesses the same qualities that drew me to my Airheads, only more so. And to be honest, even modern Guzzis seem to have been able to retain that mechanicalness, that analogness, when BMW itself seems to have mostly lost touch with it.

And it never really hit home until my walk through the Barber paddock brought me to the display area of Miami’s MotoStudio.

I’m pretty sure that MotoStudio would prefer for me to tell you how beautiful their Ducati Specials are.

But I won’t.

Even though they are.

I’d been talking to a friend of the shop — a guy from Miami named Sunshine. He told me that the shop’s proprietor and chief designer was a sculptor. Waking up every morning next to an artist and spending my fair share of time with other art school and creatives, the truth of that was right before my eyes.

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I mean, look at the thing.

Good sweet googly moogly, this is a motorcycle that is equal parts NASA, Empty Space, Tron, GM Big Block and Constantin Brancusi, for God’s sake.

Heck, maybe GM Big Block isn’t big enough — maybe more like Pratt and Whitney Radial — but no matter.

This motorcycle took my breath away.

It still does.

If I’d been the guy that hit the big Powerball, I’d have called up the shop and had them send this to my house, straight away.

The lines, shape and proportions of the thing are nothing short of perfect –the carbon fiber bodywork is clearly the work of a sculptor. The custom metal fabrication in the supports for the tank and the tail section aren’t far behind. The selection of road gear — suspension, brakes, wheels and tires — are top of top shelf. The visual presence of the motor and transmission — with its uniform matt aluminum finish — is nothing short of huge.

If my R90S BMW is a 9 or 10 out of 10 motorcycle experience, this motorcycle clearly goes to 11s.

Just looking at the thing its telling me about being leaned all the way in at the apex of a corner, tires scrubbing at their limits, huge power pulses coming through the bars and pegs, and lifting the front tire subtly on the exit as the power peaks coming onto the next straight. It’s unusual for motorcycles to speak to me, but the message of this MotoStudio MotoGuzzi is as clear as a Times Square Billboard.

When I got back from Alabama I was dismayed to find that I’d misplaced the business card that Sunshine had given to me — this is surprising because I’m usually pretty good with such things.

So if you’re out there, Sunshine, check in, man.

Cause even though I didn’t hit the Powerball, next time I’m in South Florida, I want to catch up, and see what else MotoStudio has that might take my breath away.

 

***

 

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

 

 

Dirt

There was a time, back at the dawn of it all, when dirt was all there was.

When Daimler created Einspur, there was only dirt to ride it on.

As soon as the products of Oscar Hedstrom and William S. Harley could tension leather belts and power white rubber wheels, motorcycles were sliding through corners, flinging dirt from what then was passing for roads.

Harley-Davidson_Monocylinder

***

If it weren’t for Hoosier Carl G. Fisher — a man who was a roller if there ever was one — it might be that way still.

Carl wanted to go faster– first on bicycles, then in cars, and eventually even as a racer. And going faster and rutted mud and gravel do not naturally mix.

So Carl — enlisting some 1912 Social Networking buzz, in the form of guys like Teddy Roosevelt and Thomas Edison — conveived of The Lincoln Highway — the Transcontinental Railroad Golden Spike Moment of the Internal Combustion Universe.

A single strip of pavement that went from New York to San Francisco. That made us one nation under a dotted white highway line.

Since then, in America. We’ve been paving over pretty much every-damn-thing in sight ever since.

***

Which makes it seem funny to me that we seem to have collectively forgotten that a motorcycle started out as a better way to get down a rutted gravel road.

Look at most of the motorcycles made in the last, say 50 years, and a dirt road is clearly the furthest thing from their minds. The UJMs that made up most of the 70s and 80s. Racetrack replicas. Anything Harley Davidson. The mission was pavement, Holmes, and getting some of the aformentioned rides sliding was a recipe for quick, sharp pain.

Adventure Riders with their Farkeled-out Battlewagons have begun to pull our attention back, but close to 600 lbs of blaster is not your friend if things start to get physical in the dirt.

When making the case for the longevity and popularity of their GS line, BMW claimed that one of the reasons that riders ensured that the company would survive was because the boxers were so capable when conditions turned to crap. In making the GS, they said, they were only really recognizing how their customers used their motorcycles already.

And while my Born-in-Brooklyn Marketing BS Detector keeps spinning the blue lights and sounding that Klaxon, part of me has to admit it’s kinda true.

Right after I got the Toaster I used to run the power lines north of Baltimore’s Loch Raven with it.

It tractored right up any hill, although down was not exactly its thing.

I camped off of it — doing miles of stone roads heavily loaded in eastern parklands and out in New Mexico.

And its why when I moved out of the city, and had more modern bikes with many less miles, that it got a set of lightweight dual sport tires, and was scrambling about a decade before a Scrambler was, like, a thing.

I know now that my next set of Toaster tires need more substantial knobs.

***

My home in Frederick County Maryland is a landscape in change. It is an historically agricultural county being sligshotted into being a bedroom suburb of distant Washington and Baltimore, and a place wondering if in that process it will lose things that cannot be replaced.

One of those things are our dirt roads — rolled pea gravel roads that run alongside creekbeds and run though farm fields, that leapfrog through forest from creek to ridgeline and back along creekbeds again. Roads with stream fords, and with one lane cast iron bridges that look no different to me than they did to an aviator-googled leather helmeted guy piloting his brand new Pope, hoping to stay in the frame with his bud’s Excelsior.

There are others who feel the way I do. I am not the only one who goes to the dirt to feel something out of time, to get in touch with the world our Grandfathers, Great Grandfathers and Great Great Grandfathers knew.

***

Due to one of those sustained periods of overstimulation at work, combined with the fact that I was still spending most of my free moments splicing wiring and control parts on my R90S after its little mishap with big electricity, more than a few days had gone by without the opportunity for a ride.

I ended up having some business to attend to in Frederick, and the day seemed perfect for enjoyment of a naked, elemental motorcycle. Suitably geared up in my Vanson mesh and some canvas work pants, I rolled the Toaster out of the garage and threw a leg over. Since the recent replacement of the starter switch and battery, starting has been a determanistic, zero-drama event.

Business was swiftly dispatched, and with it my focus turned to a wander on the way home.

Running through the woods and along the creek on Roy Schaefer Road, I felt the inexorable need to leave the pavement behind.

At the intersection of Bennies Hill Road, I made the right, and promptly headed back in time.

I’ve never had a set of aviator goggles, but these little trips into the dirt and through the fabric of time seem to demand them, even if only for sci-fi nerd hero style.

bennies hill

Bennies Hill is a gravel single track that follows the path of a creek called the Cone Branch. It runs under a dense canopy of trees – made all the greener and denser by the sustained heavy rains that started our summer here. The straight stretches are all oddly off camber, and the corners that separate them are all fairly tight, providing mutiple opportunities to play with a little flat track style sliding.

The early season deluge has given way to a recent dry spell, so the surface was dry and dusty, leading to my front end seemeing a tad more skatey and wandery than usual, despite having reduced my tire pressures slightly with the dirt in mind. Dual-sport tires like these Distanzias are more about pose than actual traction — that contemplated set of Heidenau Scouts may be closer in my future than I’d been thinking.

After one tight corner, Bennie Hill has a concrete ramp bridge, something I suspect may be unique to these parts. These bridges are placed where a steam crossing used to be, and are just a strip of concrete to keep one out of the water. These bridges are designed to just submerge when flooding conditions occur, and then pop back up when the creek goes back down. I know of at least 5 of these things within 5 miles of my house.

Riding across one of these bridges feels odd — they dont have any guardrails, curbs, visible structure or obvious support. You have water on both sides of you, but your feet stay dry.

The road passes past a home its owners call Heron Hill. This was a no-brainer for them, as I’ve never ridden past the place when there wasn’t at least one Great Blue visible somewhere on the property, and today was no exception.

At the left hander coming past the Heron, I dialed in just the right amound of gas for an entertaining slide.

For a kid that never could manage to talk my Dad into a dirtbike, I now pronounce myself fully caught up.

Bennies Hill Road then comes to what I’ve always assumed was Bennies Hill. There are no packs of buxom beauties inexplicably rushing about, and the sound of Yakety Sax is fortunately nowhere in evidence. The road actually narrows, and works its way steeply down the side of a stone face. At the bottom is a 90 degree left, and the Bennies Hill Road Bridge.

The bridge is on the National Register of Historic Places — it is a single lane Iron Bowstring Arch bridge — and I beleive its one of of only two remaining that are still in service where they were built — this one in 1889.

bennies hill bridge

Coming off the bridge, the road straightens out and provides one of the few places where one can get any revs up in third gear. A short chute brings me to the intersection of Harley Road.

I have never seen any Harleys on Harley Road. Given the larger gravel surface and tight, seriously rutted corners that likly result from the heavy farm tractor traffic the road carries, I don’t imagine I ever will, either.

Now if you’re a gal or guy with a Sportster, or better still an XR, with a dirty bent, you could have some fun proving me wrong. But if you have a Softail or some sort of Ultra, this is not your road.

Harley Road is fun, with long straights, a few TT-style whoops, and the aforementioned tight switchbacks. As long as one has the presence of mind to stand up and to loosen one’s grip on the bars and let the front end do what it would like, its a fun time. On the other hand, tighten up into the so -called death grip, and you may gain some experience harvesting summer corn.

Harley Road ends with a long downhill straight, where you’re treated to a vista of the cropfields the road rolls through.

***

A quick dogleg at MD 383 puts you on Poffenberger Road.

The big white house attached to a country store building on the corner of Poffenberger is The Shamieh’s old house. It was a charming foresquare — built out of recycled lumber and building materials in 1911. The main beams of the house had obviously been reclaimed from a colonial era timber-framed barn — there were adze marks on them and a few places where there were hand forged nails that could no more be removed than the sword in the stone. I had to drop a hole in one of them once for an electrical update, and I burned up three electrician’s hole bits before I was able to declare success. 300 year old oak might as well be granite. During storms that house did-not-move, unlike my modern house which practically sways in every breeze.

When our son Finn was born 18 years ago that house was a $100,000 house that needed $200,000 worth of renovations in order to accomodate our growing family.

I did the math and resignedly bought a new house in the development on the top of the next hill for substantially less than that. I don’t miss wrenching on the bones of that old house, but I do miss my neighbors, who were social and understood the meaning of community. We shared meals, watched each others children, and if you were in a jam with something involving tools helping hands had a tendency to appear unbidden. My nice house in the development is a place where people walk about with their heads down and act as if other people don’t exist.

I’ve ridden Poffenberger road so many times it becomes almost hypnotic. After blasting away from my old house, the road makes a few nice carvable sweeping corners, then drops down a big hill that turns back to dirt at the bottom. If one has been overenjoying oneself, and is carrying enthusiastic levels of speed, the unannounced swap back to all gravel can create a few moments of noticeable stimulation.

The road snakes through the woods, with tight corners providing more opportunities for sliding throttle play, dodges a few mud puddles, and comes down to Catoctin Creek and another of our Historic Bridges.

The Poffenberger Road bridge is a Truss Bridge built by the Wrought Iron Bridge Company of Canton Ohio. We think it was built in the late 1870s. The Poffenberger Bridge is a more substantial bridge, built by Ohioans that took great pride in their work. All of the reinforcing filets where the beams join have floral patterns cut into them. 150 years old, still doing the work it was designed for, and looking good doing it. That you and I should be so blessed.

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Where the bridge crosses Catoctin Creek, the Creek is wide, clear and moving fast. I usually tarry, enjoying the clear view from the bridge’s wooden deck to the rounded stones on the creekbottom.

Coming off the bridge, Poffenberger Road follows Catoctin Creek. The road opens right up running straight alongside the creek, and its possible to put down some serious throttle and run up — throwing gravel and dust into the air behind you — smartly through the gears.

There’s a left hand sweeper at the end of the straight, and if Nixon rides with you today, you can set the bike on the left side of the tire and slide stylishly out of it.

A micro-straight leads you back to a major whoop and then a short stretch of pavement in front of a Heritage Farm that has been in that spot since the 1700s. Then we’re right back in the gravel and running another long stright along the creek that takes you to the Lewis Mill.

The Lewis Mill is a still functional gristmill, waterwheel and all, currently inhabited by a Potter friend of my Painter wife. The mill has been in that spot since the late 1780s, and inhabits the entire plain in a bend in the Creek. A more magical place I almost cannot imagine. Sitting out by the creek, listening to the water roll by and making company with farm geese, it is exactly the same now as it was two and a half centuries before.

Poffenberger Road very nearly takes one right in the front door of the mill, sitting as it does sandwiched between the Creek and the steep hill that rises to the left. The steepness of the hill and the sharpness of the corner provides opportunities for getting bent out of shape if your enthusiasm exceeds one’s available traction.

After the short, steep rise, the road breaks sharply to the left, working its way around a bluff before dropping back down to the creek. In the dirt, we laugh at the very thought of guardrails, and off the right side of the road is a dizzying view of the roughly 60 foot uninterrupted drop back to the stones of the creekbed. Slide off the right side of the road here and it will be the last riding mistake you ever make.

Poffenberger drops sharply down the other side of the bluff and one finds oneself running hard and straight beside the creek again.

At the end of the stright there is a right onto Corun Road, and a steep narrow climb up a goatpath in the woods marked by utterly blind corners. Bursting back into the sun I emerge onto MD State Highway Route 383, sitting at a stopsign and staring across a pasture right at the front of my house.

***

Sitting back in my driveway in the current century the Toaster wears laurels of the grey white dust of crushed limestone. There are seeps of oil on the oil pan, and smudges of gear oil mixed with rock dust on the rear rim and final drive.

These little trips in the dirt focus the mind — everything slows down and getting to the end with no broken bones, air still in the tires and the motor still turning with miles of crushed rock road stretching out behind still seems as much a technological miracle as it must have seemed in 1912. Travelling alone in the silence of the woods — feeling every bump and rut, throwing dirt and wrestling with traction — no other cars or trucks around — seems like such a necessary antidote to the oversubscription, overcrowding and underattention of the rest of the paved world.

Riding the dirt is an express ticket to a simpler past, to being self sufficient, self reliant, and being willing to take a shot.

With the signs all alround us that The World is Running Down, once dirt was all there was, and it could soon be so again.

Slide On, Brother, Slide On.

 

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

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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.