Pioneers, Trackers, Roadracers and Heros — Part Three

What is a hero?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Calvin Rayborn, though, was entirely another matter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cal’s Trans-Atlantic Match Race Harley XR

 

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

 

 

***

 

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

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

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

Wayne’s Championship Superbike

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

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

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

Rainey’s YZR500 – Missile By Marlboro

 

Mr. Rainey’s Office

 

***

 

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

Not Nixon’s Bike, But a Pretty Convincing Replica

Don Emde – Master of Lightweights

Mig’s CBR600RR

 

Malcolm Smith Dressed For Any Sunday

A Better Look at Malcolm’s Husky

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

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

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

Because there it is, the actual Hall of Fame.

The Hall

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

It’s a place of contemplation. Of reverence.

The company’s pretty good.

 

***

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

***

 

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

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The Promised Land — Part 7

After the better part of a day wandering through the various collections of the Barber Motorsport Museum, it really was time to get back out in the fresh air.

As I headed back towards the light at the front of the Museum, though, there was one more area with some thrills to be had.

The Barber folk had a Legends of Racing area that concentrated on their unrivalled collection of Daytona winning motorcycles, with a few others thrown in for seasoning.

The Yamaha TZ750 was one of the most successful road racing motorcycles of all time. Using a 2-stroke powerplant that was essentially 2 stroked TZ350 engines siamesed together to make an inline 4 , the engine had an entirely deserved reputation for being a bit of a handful.

For a few races, Yamaha had demonstrated extreme hubris by installing the TZ’s 4 cylinder power unit into one of then two time Grand National Champion Kenny Roberts’ Dirt Flat Track racing motorcycles.

That motorcycle was that thing that Kenny was talking about when he famously said, “They don’t pay me enough to ride that thing.”

In his characteristic terseness, Kenny described riding it thusly: “Finding grip was a problem.”.

Funny thing was, substituting pavement for dirt didn’t improve things that much.

It took more than five years of sleepless nights and endless brain explody for suspension engineers, for tire engineers, for frame engineers, before a road racing motorcycle could be constructed that could adequately manage the insanity that came out of that engine.

By then, TZs were still lighting up their rear tires, but at least as a pilot, it was possible to get that thing to at least go where you pointed it.

This machine, that was raced by Randy Cleek in the 1975 TransAtlantic Match Racing series, wasn’t one of those.

DSCN2526

This one still has a pipe frame, pretty skinny tires, and simple emulsion shocks and damper rod forks.

I find myself just looking at it, and in my head vividly hearing that shriek, and imagining the feeling of the bars going loose under my palms as the rear hazes the pavement under power.

I saw the last of the inline 4 2-strokes race when Yamaha leased one year old GP machines to a team that campaigned under a run-what-ya-brung-no-matter-how-nutz class called Formula Extreme. The Yamaha OWs absolutely dusted a field filled with Turbocharged Big Block Suzuki four stroke fours and other silly modified muscle bikes. Standing at the end of the main stright at Pocono and having the two Yamamha racebikes blow by nose to tail felt a lot like being overflown by The Blue Angels.

 

***

 

This isn’t what it looks like.

DSCN2529

What it looks like is Old Blue, Cook Neilson and Phil Schilling’s famous California Hot Rod road race Ducati, winner of the 1977 Daytona 200.

Cook_Neilson_v_Reg_Pridmore

But since Old Blue is actually sitting on a Persian carpet in a living room somewhere in New Jersey, one can be excused for the HumminaHumminaHummina Quadruple Take when one walks up on this in one of the museum’s corners.

What this is is Deja Blue, a completely accurate in every detail replica of Old Blue.

Since the Barber couldn’t manage to obtain the real thing, they made their own.

I will observe that their attention to detail borders on the spooky. It not only fooled me, but being guys with a flair for the dramatic, they rolled it out behind Cook Neilson, the pilot of the original bike, during a presentation he was giving and he was rendered absolutely speechless. Guys that know Cook will attest to the infrequency of such events.

The guys at Ducati liked it so much, they had NCR, the famous Ducati race shop, create the Cook Neilson Replica, known as New Blue.

 

DSCN2473

New Blue, Deja Blue, all this blue.

When all we really want is Old Blue.

 

***

 

Nobody needs to be told who Freddie Spencer is.

One of the most gifted riders ever, and the only one ever to win two Grand Prix racing classes — 250 and 500 — in the same year.

Freddie retired from GP after 1988, but couldn’t stay away from racing.

DSCN2527

This is Freddie’s 1991 AMA Superbike ride, a Two Brothers Racing RC30.

Freddie won the Camel Superbike GP held in the streets of Miami on this motorcycle.

The bike, like Freddie in his prime, is a thing of beauty.

I read an article by him lately stating his distain for motorcycles with electronic riders aids, and he sounded just like me — saying it was impossible to live in the moment with the robots watching your back.

When I say it, its an opinion.

When Freddie says it, some people might at least reconsider.

 

***

 

Miguel DuHamel is also one of the pantheon of motorcycle racing greats — right up there with Kenny Roberts, Gary Nixon and the Doctor.

The son of a roadracing champion, and a champion in his own right, Miguel is the second most winning AMA Roadracer of all time, bested only by Matt Mladin.

This is one Miguel’s many Daytona winners, this one from 1999.

 

DSCN2528

In 1999, Miguel was still recovering from staggering injuries suffered during 1998’s Superbike round at Loudon, NH. He had suffered an ugly, compound fracture of his left femur that had, for a brief time, caused doctors to consider amputation of the leg.

He was in such mariginal shape at Daytona that he came into the pits on one crutch, and had to be assisted to get astride the bike. Once there, though, his comfort level must have increased at least a little.

This is Mig’s CBR 600 F4, that he used to win the 600cc support race. He used the 600 race as a warm up — placing the CBR F4s 1-2 with Nicky Hayden on an almost identifcal bike in tow.

In the Superbike race Mig won one of the closest 200s in history – besting Mat Mladin by something like 0.14 seconds at the stripe.

Miguel was in such distress that he was quoted as saying “I didn’t even want to celebrate after that. If I could have rode my bike straight to the Hampton Inn and gone to sleep, I would’ve done it.”

Makes you wonder what woud have been possible if the guy was healthy.

 

***

 

Finally, I found myself back out in the sunshine, leaning up against the saddle of the LT in the parking lot.

I was turning over all of the wonders I had seen within, trying to commit them to memory.

There were two guys from Georgia whose bikes were parked next to mine. They lived a short ride away and had made a simple day trip down to the festival. We were shooting the shit and laughing, just reveling in the bikey atmosphere of the whole thing.

I’ve always indulged in dangerous sports my entire life — ice hockey, lacrosse, motorcycling. All are pursuits where significant things can occur in the literal blink of an eye.

My relative success in all of these pursuits likely has something to do with some relativistic time elongation thing that occurs when stuff goes horribly wrong. My perception goes into an alternate mode where everything occurs in super slo-mo, whether someone has just fired a hockey puck at my face, or the front wheel of my motorcycle has just decided it has had enough of this traction thing.

And standing in the parking lot at Barber that day, time went all rubber on me.

The thing is, my recollection of the thing is clearly asynchronous.

Simple physics.

Light is faster than sound. Not debatable or at issue.

But what I remember perceiving first was the “BANG!”– the explosive, metallic slam of something significant slamming insto the pavement.

I’d been looking up in the direction of the perimeter road.

But I’d been shitshootin’ with the guys, and wasn’t really paying attention.

The human brain probably wasn’t engineered to function like a DVR, but I clearly TIVOed.

At the “BANG!”, my brain went back a few seconds on the video stream and replayed what’d I’d apparently missed.

A standard motorcycle, two up, was running down the perimeter road toward the park exit — maximum speed 25 miles an hour — revs down in second gear. A good citizen, not a hint of moto-foolery.

During playback, the passenger slowly rolled off the motorcycle to the rear, her legs wheeling through the air as she dropped on her head and her shoulders.

And just as fast, the rear of the bike snapped sideways, and even fighting it, the pilot got slammingly high-sided, only letting go of the bars when physics could no longer be resisted.

The visual track and the soundtrack came back into full sync.

Me and the two guys from Georgia wigged.

“Shit! Did that just happen?”

The three of us sprinted up the bank towards the downed riders.

The young lady was already up, walking it off.

The pilot was in worse shape. He had rolled over the curb and into the grass, and had clearly taken a shot and was slow coming around.

One of the Georgians had the presence of mind to kill switch the bike, a newer Triumph Speed Triple. The left crank cover had broken cleanly in two, and oil — dude was a little overdue for a change, it seemed — was pouring onto the pavement. Another onlooker helped him get the bike up and moved to the side of the road.

It looked, upon inspection, that some soft luggage had gotten dislodged and sucked into the driveline, causing rapid and unmanageble adjustments to vehicle physics.

We helped the pilot sit up, but not get up, and helped him remove his helmet. His jeans were in ribbons, and both his knees bady rashed and bleeding.

I took a position on the upside of the accident, and the other Geogian moved to the downside, and both of us directed traffic around the bike, rider, debris and spilled oil.

Less than a minute went by before the local Sheriffs, stylishly riding their Authority Model Gold Wings, arrived on scene and took control.

I checked up with one of them — “You got this?”.

I got a thumbs up from LEO and and walked slowly back across the road, hearing the sounds of one of the ambulances coming in, having been pulled from its station beside the racetrack.
***

 

I left the track, cruised an exit up the Interstate and into Leeds proper.

I found a nice family-run mexican restaurant, and had some absolutely great tacos al carbon, a rellano, and a Dos Exxis.

I kept looking at my canvas cargo work pants, and thinking how inadequate they were — given what I’d seen — if Physics decided it had had enough with me. Thinking about how often that I rode like that, and how much faster I usually rode than the 25 mph I’d seen could produce such damage.

I headed back to the Hampton, and tried to wrap my head around the last 24 hours, which contained more motorcycles and motorcycling than any other single day of my life.

As I fell into an exhausted sleep, I kept thinking — “This ticket on my wrist is good for two more days… two more days… two… more …. days…..”

 

***

 

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