Friday, November 28, 2014

You Give Me (Typhoid) Fever

Friday practice, (the one I paid extra for), was half over by the time I rolled into Mid-Ohio in my Joad family wagon. Vintage Motorcycle Days is a huge event, drawing tens of thousands of spectators over 3 days, as well as some of the best riders of classic machinery in the country. No sooner did I get the bike unloaded than the storm clouds gathered. Mid-Ohio is treacherous in the wet and I had no desire to practice in it, so I hurried to get out while it was still dry.

I made about 4 laps before the deluge. The only thing I really accomplished was getting all my gear sopping wet, as I rode dejectedly back to the pits I found everything I owned that wasn't tied down floating across the tarmac. I ran around collecting the flotsam with water squishing out of my boots and my leathers getting heavier. The lightning set in and the track was closed for safety. An ominous start to what was proving to be a difficult venture on all fronts. At least the rain broke the humidity. For about 15 minutes...

That meant another night in the EZ Bake Snap On Oven. The borrowed generator I trucked all the way from NY was louder than a thousand train wrecks and still didn't have enough juice to run my borrowed air conditioner. I lay there melting into the foam mattress and in the moments I was not kept awake by thought induced insomnia, I dreamed the dreams of the insane, restless and feverish.

Morning brought new pleasures, namely having to utilize the Porta-Potty facilities at the top of the paddock. Heat radiated off the upright plastic sarcophagi like a crematorium. You keep telling yourself not to look down, because if you don't look down it's not as bad, while trying to hold every stitch of clothing off the floor because the dirty lout before you was nice enough to mark it his territory and your shoes are sticking. I was sweating so bad that I feared slipping between the toilet seat and dying a vile blue chemical and crap soup death at the bottom of that pit of filth.

After using the last three scraps of toilet paper and realizing there isn't enough foamy hand sanitizer in the world that can make you feel clean again, you stumble back onto the pavement gasping for air and make your way to the showers, now a carrier for cholera and dysentery. A group shower to be precise, just like high school, and prison, but dirtier and with even worse plumbing. One shower-head sprays a jet so sharp it threatens to circumcise you again, while the others are merely a dribble, I think the sweat is actually running out of my pores quicker. I lather quickly and rinse, knowing I have now picked up athlete's foot, ringworm and probably herpes. By the time I am dressed again I feel worse than before I showered. I wonder how a national caliber racetrack like Mid-Ohio gets by with such sub-standard restroom facilities, I also wonder if it is too late to take up golf.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Snapped Off

I was halfway to spontaneous combustion on a sticky, sweaty July weekend, the kind that has volunteers delivering water to old people and invalids. It was the beginning of a hellish trip to Ohio in a recently purchased dying ex-Snap On cube van with no air-conditioning. Somewhere outside of Rochester, NY, one of the dual rear wheels decided it would attempt to part company with the vehicle, taking most of the wheel studs with it. A slight shimmy turned into a violent shake before my over-boiled brain realized something was wrong. Pulling over on the side of the NYS Thruway to diagnose this issue was probably the most dangerous thing I would do that weekend.

There was one lug nut remaining to hold the wheel on, and just three of eight wheel studs left. I could not afford to have the behemoth towed, so I decided that three wheel studs would have to work as far as the nearest garage. I robbed 2 lug nuts from the other wheels, tightened the whole blasted lot down. With salty sweat stinging my eyes, I think I might have said a short prayer, or I may have been cursing god.

The first truck repair place I found refused to work on the van. After driving another 10 miles I found a shop in Geneva, NY that said they would do the repair, but the parts wouldn't be in until morning. When I asked if the van was safe to drive to the nearest campground the shop owner and his mechanic gave me strange looks. Fuck it, I thought, it wouldn't be the first time a wheel has fallen off one of my vehicles.....

I spent the night in that aluminum oven, body dripping, wondering if I would die. A call to Phil for moral support did nothing to ease the dehydration that was starting in my soul. The day dawned expensive to the tune of $300 and I pondered if I could afford the rest of the trip. I suppose turning back was an option, but my heat-induced daze had me scrambling forward over the next sand dune for the oasis I could almost touch, while the scorpions nipped at my balls and the buzzards hovered....

The heat was more oppressive and the humidity made breathing feel like drowning, but I was thankful that all the wheels seemed happy to remain in place. I began to feel I would make it to Mid-Ohio after all. That is until I stopped at the toll booth in Buffalo and the goddamn van stalled just as I went to take off again. It is a very surreal fucking feeling rolling along in a vehicle as quiet as a tomb with traffic whooshing by on both sides, idiots honking their horns and yelling at you to get out of the way, but for fear of being hit you cannot get over to the shoulder. Hazard lights flashing, I cranked and cranked on that son of a bitching starter to no avail. I screamed, pleaded, kicked the steering column, I may have even sobbed. I wanted to lay my head on the steering wheel and wait for a tractor trailer to plow me into oblivion before I suffocated in my own perspiration. I offered up another invocation to any spirits in the vicinity, hit the starter one more time and the Chevy small block stumbled awake from it's feverish slumber. My foot went to the mat and the disaster went rolling on down the road again.

Things went fine until I had to come to a stop, whereupon the van would stall again. I popped the hood to see if I could figure out what the hell was going on and I found the fuel filter empty, which was odd, because I had plenty of gas. I decided the quickest way to get that pile of shit out of the traffic lane it was blocking was to back-fill the filter with gas from the can in the back of the van. Keep in mind that I am trying to do this amidst honking horns and motherfuckers screaming at me. It is truly amazing how other people get so offended at someone for breaking down, I mean, shouldn't I be the one offended? I believe some of them actually wanted to do me physical harm. John Lee Hooker sang, "The road is so rough.", he wasn't kidding.

Long story a little shorter, I finally made it to Vintage Motorcycle Days at the Mid-Ohio Sportscar Course in Lexington, Ohio, van stalling the whole damn way, me covered in gas from re-filling the fuel filter. I did not have enough functioning brain cells to figure out the problem or enough funds to pay someone else to. I parked in the paddock after paying the exorbitant gate fees and shut the van off knowing that for at least two days I wouldn't have to worry about re-starting it.

Hollywood depiction


Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Motives of Motivation

As the riding improved, so did the bike. Weaknesses were addressed, special cylinder heads from the UK were purchased to solve the cracking issues, a very expensive aftermarket ignition eliminated the need for a battery and a Yamaha chassis modified to take the Suzuki T500 engine helped in the handling department. Cubic dollars were spent.

Spent chasing what exactly? The second question people ask me when they find out I race motorcycles is: "Do you make any money doing that?" (the first always is, 'Oh you race dirtbikes, motorcross?'). My short answer to both of these is no. It is very hard for even the best of the best in this country to make money road racing, let alone an aging slacker trying to live out his fantasies on obsolete machinery. So why then?

You put yourself in this chosen arena and on the best of days you bust your ass to do it, on the worst days, well let's just say it brings grown men to tears. There are not many thank-yous for participation, no throng of adoring fans, no big cash purses handed out or lucrative contracts signed. And yet we continue in spite of those things, often to the chagrin of loved ones, because to not do it leaves a hole in you.

Competition. Love of the sport. The desire to test one's mettle. The catchphrases fall short of the indelible mark this thing leaves on the racer's soul. Made all the more perfect by the utter lack of understanding from the general populace. A pure and private thing remains the impetus. Why do we do it? Because we have to.

Kris Larrivee, Ralf Scholtes (RIP) and another racer battle it out

Monday, November 24, 2014

On the Other Side of Fear

The start of a race is the most dangerous time. With anywhere from 10 to 40 bikes lined up on the grid, engines and hearts revving to the moon there is so much that can go wrong. Stalling the engine as the green flag drops means you could get absolutely lambasted from behind as another rider moves through traffic. It is not a pretty sight watching as bodywork and body parts explode, sailing through the air. We have all seen that helpless rider waving his arms frantically like a rabid chicken trying not to get hit. I know many racers who have nightmares about it.

It seems like such a simple thing, when the green flag drops, go. The weeks and months of preparation and training come down to those frenetic moments watching the flagman intently, restrained and straining, always thinking, if I can just get through Turn 1 it will all be OK. Most of the time it is, sometimes it isn't (see paragraph above). It always makes me nauseous.

But never so nauseous that I wouldn't line up and do it again right now. The start of a race is always a new beginning, an opportunity to learn something, to better oneself, finally get it right. Racing may be a cruel mistress, but she never stops giving you second chances.

Its scary as hell, but on the other side of fear is what lies ahead, good or bad, and the only way to know is to drop the clutch and hammer that son of a bitch like there is no tomorrow, because there might not be.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

La Voie Larrivee

The learning curve was very steep. Two things were evident from the start: 1. I was no mechanic. 2. I was no gifted rider. In retrospect the smartest thing would have been to purchase a more modern machine, such as a Kawasaki EX500, do some track days to build up confidence and skill, then make my way slowly to the deep end (actually the smartest thing to do would have been to go back to school and make something of myself, but I digress). There is the right way, the wrong way and then the Larrivee Way, which can generally be summed up as banging your head against a wall repeatedly until bloody, stopping to put a band-aid on, then re-commence banging, expecting a different outcome.

I fell down, I got back up. I destroyed helmets, I bought new ones. I holed pistons, I bought new ones. At one point I had the largest collection of cracked left hand T500 cylinder heads in the world, rivaled only by my pile of broken crankshafts. I spent the money I had on racing and repairs. I started selling the left over street parts on Ebay to offset some of this cost.

I blamed the bike for being unreliable and slow, whined about other riders having better equipment. The focus on the negative became a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure. I had a flair for the dramatic, throwing wrenches, helmets, kicking my broken motorcycle and generally acting like an entitled little bitch. I deserved to be winning races, why couldn't the rest of the universe see that?

A lot of energy got wasted in this fashion, looking back I wince at some of my actions during this time. At least I proved to be a source of endless entertainment for my group of racer friends. They found my struggles, my self induced comedy of errors, hilarious. I wanted to be a serious competitor, I ended up as something of a joke. Egged on by the attention I continued in this manner, flying in the face of authority, rationality and physics. Most of the time it did not end well. Something was going to have to give....

A breakthrough in my riding happened during a race at Shannonville. I found myself behind a somewhat heavy racer on a very questionable Yamaha RD 400. I say questionable because we had been looking at it in the pits and the thing was atrocious, seeping oil, old tires, bargain bin suspension. In practice this rider and I drag raced down the back straight, my Suzuki winning handily. Despite this, I was unable to make a pass. I could out-accelerate him, I was a lighter rider by at least 20 pounds, had better brakes and suspension but through some magic beyond my limited comprehension, he was faster. My brain focused on solving this conundrum while my body concentrated on the actions required to keep the RD in my sights. Whatever this rider was doing worked and I would be damned if he was going to get away with it. I followed him into and out of every corner, adopted his brake markers and turn in points, copied his lines, paid attention to every nuance of his riding. His corner entry speed was remarkably faster than mine, which made his mid-corner speed and the all important exit speed greater. He got on the gas sooner and more fully, braked later, but more subtly he was stringing the corners together one after another to put together a lap. I was always thinking about the previous corner and how I blew it when the next one came rushing up. This rider was thinking at least 3 or more corners ahead, his mind and body knew what to do well in advance and they did it, all the while looking farther ahead. I blatantly stole every trick he had and looked for more. I learned more about riding during those 10 minutes than the 10 races, hell 10 years prior. His engine gave up the ghost on the last lap and I finally passed him, but there is no question in my mind that if not for his mechanical failure, he would have beat me.

A small mental shift occurred that day. I had been railing against a host of things over which I had no sway and bemoaning my fate instead of concentrating on all the things over which I could exert some control. Details mattered, preparation mattered, thinking mattered, not rushing in leading with your balls. Les évolue de Cro-Magnon.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Not Nostalgia

Some nudniks think that vintage bikes are slow piles of junk and that to race one is akin to wading in the kiddie pool. They have obviously never tried to hustle a flexing, sliding CB 350 through Turn 5 at Mosport with ten other 350s sniffing your exhaust, held 2 fingers over the clutch lever on a race-tuned RD400 on the banking at Daytona praying you got the jetting right or watched the last real men compete on hand shift, rigid framed Harleys and Indians. While most artifices of the past are relegated to scrap heap or museum, vintage racebikes enjoy a hardscrabble second life at the track: flog to within an inch of existence, then re-build, rinse, repeat.

Stand on the corner of Main St. in any town on a sunny Sunday, wait five minutes and you are sure to hear the sound of two types of motorcycle, the growl of a Japanese in-line four cylinder and a barely muffled V-twin of Milwaukee lineage. Stand at the wall on pit lane any vintage race weekend and you are likely to hear so much more: the twitter of a BSA Gold Star, shrieking two-strokes in the single, twin, triple and even four cylinder variety, the bellows of a herd of 4-stroke Honda twins sounding much larger than their actual diminutive displacement. Outdated, obsolete but completely relevant. Some history is worth repeating.

It takes a certain type to be a serious motorcyclist, it also takes an even more specialized person to race bikes, but it takes a seriously crazy bastard to race vintage motorcycles. Anybody can buy a late model sportbike off Craigslist, order an exhaust, get some suspension work done and put it on the track. Vintage machines demand involvement, intimate knowledge of internal workings, weaknesses and quirks. They beg for you to solve, in some cases glaring, deficits in original design before being put to the ultimate test. A vintage race bike requires the owner to be equal parts engineer, tuner, loving caretaker and alchemist, stipulating that the rider be acutely aware of exactly not only what the machine is capable of doing, but what it is likely to do at any given moment. A subtle change in the engine's tone, a slight drop in power, anything that could signal impending internal deconstruction. Like a finicky lover in need of gentle persuasion who is just as likely to hurl a vase at your head as to hug you. These are not appliances, they are instruments. And they are not for everyone.

Kris Larrivee and Tyler Wilson. No quarter given, none asked.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Safe Canadian Home

Eventually some of the other vintage racers took pity on this clueless soul. What a sight I must have been, sitting on my cooler eating cheese sandwiches and baking in the sun, when I wasn't running around burning my hands on hot spark plugs trying to get a reading or dumping pre-mix everywhere while changing main jets. A racer approached and told me I needed to get into the shade. He pointed to his pit area and said that I could shelter under his canopy.

This simple gesture opened up the world of motorcycle racing for me and thus I was pulled into the fold. It is not an exaggeration to say that the "vintage guys" were some of the best people you could hope to meet. Languishing under borrowed shade, drinking a water that someone handed to me and the only price of admission was to tell these new found friends who I was and how I came to be there.

This was a working class lot of do-it-yourselfers, building and wrenching on race bikes and fixing their own vehicles. They drank beer, told uproarious stories, put on no airs and made no excuses for who they were. They didn't have the latest, greatest plastic wrapped sportbikes, hell their cars were all 15 years or older, but it didn't matter. They were happy and thankful to be able to do such an amazing thing. The spirit was truly infectious. The most memorable characters were Wayne and Brian. I never met two people who got more joy from motorcycle racing. It was obvious from the ear to ear grins and excited arm movements as the two talked about it.

Wayne drove a beer truck that the company allowed him to take to the racetrack with free samples. This made him quite popular as you can imagine. Even the modern bike hotshoes that would snub their noses at vintage riders were friendly to Wayne. He had long grey hair and a mustache, in the best of 1970's metal style. When he thought about something his eyes were half closed and he looked asleep or stoned, but he had a quick mind and even quicker laugh with all the enthusiasm of a kid. Wayne was skilled at brazing, and I often pressed him into service fixing my ever cracking exhausts. I can still picture him standing there with torch and brazing rod in hand, talking about getting it to "flow". He rode a yellow Kawasaki H1, with an unforgettable wail that emanated from it's three expansion chambers.

(Wayne on one of his beloved two-strokes)

Brian was a talented self-employed machinist. I asked him to help me make some spacers and brackets one time. I watched in wonder as he turned a hunk of aluminum into exactly what I needed. It was a sight to behold, a man in his element making something from nothing, taking a measurement here, spinning a dial there. I lamented those AP English classes that ain't done me no damn good and issued a silent apology to all the guys in shop class I made fun of. Not once in my life had I ever done anything with such skill and precision and made it look like child's play. This was a man that could create with his own two hands, see a problem and solve it on his own.

He raced a Suzuki T500, like I was at the time. This made him my early benchmark. If I could keep up with him or beat him, then I knew I was doing ok, if I couldn't, then I was not riding well. We had some great battles during the early years:

Through Wayne's simple act of offering me shade on that blistering day, I found the key component that was lacking in my race experience, camaraderie. The racetrack now was not only an arena to compete, but a gathering place to meet with like-minded souls genuinely pleased by your presence. I will never forget the giddy feeling wheeling in to the paddock on a Thursday night, smiling wide at people who understood exactly why you did this thing. Confederates who would lend a hand, parts, money to help keep each other going and then stuff you into turn one on Saturday. Maybe that's what they mean by community.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

An Everest To Climb

How succinctly Mr. McQueen summed up the racer's drive in those few lines. If I knew any better I would leave it at that, but I have never been able to resist running off at the mouth, keyboard, whatever.

Racing can be the test of a man. In a world that fosters, even rewards mediocrity, the sport demands excellence. At race's end, there is no question who was the best that day. An absurdly simple concept on the outside that becomes mindbogglingly complicated when explored. As I write this I realize that I have bitten off too much in a fumble fingers attempt at explaining it. What follow are the romanticized musings of one adherent.

Racing motorcycles is vicious, savage, violent, beautiful, sophisticated, soulful and often misunderstood. It suffers no fools while gleefully breeding pain, heartache and financial ruin, then begrudgingly doling out triumph in the tiniest doses to a worthy and lucky handful. It remains not for the faint of heart, weak of will or light of wallet. So why do it?

Easy answers are elusive, to my knowledge no one has written a Cliff's Notes version that would squelch the naysayers. Many cannot understand the brazen act of riding on two wheels, let alone the Sisyphus barefoot on a razor's edge feat of competing on them. There are those for whom "birth, school, work, death" is not enough. Such restless men have always existed, taking to the seas, then the skies and stars never once saying, "Geez, that's dangerous." Willing to roll the dice, wager skill, experience and luck against whatever fate could hurl. Only by blowing casual kisses up the skirt of Death is the true fullness of life realized for these uncommon few whom are only at peace on the limits of control. We should not fear for those willing to engage their passions but rather pity those who will not. Without the ones that cannot be easily categorized or stereotyped humanity would boil down to a dull grey and flavorless gristled prime-time TV lineup.

The racer believes he is going to live forever, no matter how many times he takes the whole screeching, quivering mass to the brink he can finesse it back by his own mastery, knowing there is always more time to be found, more speed to be had. Some call this denial, I prefer to think of it as "self-faith". Faith can often be wrong, but it persists, allowing continuance. If he should fall down he brushes the dirt off and remounts, promising to himself to 'get it right next time'. There is no quit within the racer, regardless of circumstances. As long as the motor is running and the wheels turning the fight is on. These are not simple-minded adrenaline junkies seeking a fix, but calculating competitors hurtling forth on their chess pieces seeking checkmate at the speed of light. They do not line up on the grid for the thrill of danger, they line up in spite of it.

Imagine reality distilled into just the next few moments, 10 laps. Yesterday a memory and tomorrow a dream. The race is an event that occurs in real time, demanding immediate action not committees, meetings, 4 to 6 weeks delivery and $9.99 shipping and processing. Everything, right here, right now, give it all or get the fuck out. Not the purview of effete half-assed men. Cutting the crap straight to the marrow, in your face, alone with only the strength of will you yourself can muster. It is an everlasting quest, only as insurmountable as it is ephemeral. A journey to understand the depth of your own measure. You cannot win every race, but you sure as hell can try. That sounds a lot like life to me.

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Image and video hosting by TinyPic

Image and video hosting by TinyPic

(Shannonville 2002: someone else gets it wrong and no, he didn't fall down)

Friday, November 14, 2014

Tits Up and Pear Shaped Marching On

The inaugural years of my racing journey can best be titled, “How Not to Go Road Racing”. Utterly unprepared I dove in face first like some horny teenager. The depth of my ignorance cannot be overstated. A green-horned newbie and a thick-headed one at that. For me to learn anything at all it was going to be the hard way. Friction was something I was to form an intimate, chafing relationship with, that is to say friction between my body riding along the world’s longest belt sander after yet another crash, friction of a poorly jetted two-stroke engine seizing again, friction with officials and race organizations that I somehow couldn’t help pissing off and the friction with other racers who did not like the loudmouth American I certainly appeared to be.

The closest racetrack was Shannonville, Ontario, Canada. This was before passports, enhanced IDs and Homeland Security. Border crossings were simple, the agents friendly, curious about racing, while the American dollar was strong, which meant everything from race fees to food were nearly 40 percent cheaper for me in the land of poutine.

The racetrack itself was in poor repair, built in 1974 and then apparently having no updates or maintenance since. The pavement was rippled, pocked and potholed, the runoff areas which appeared nice and grassy actually concealed rocks, ruts and other traps waiting to destroy rider and machine. To go off the racing line here meant tank-slapping headshake, loss of time and position, to make an excursion off the track meant risking an ass over tea kettle tumble from dropping the front wheel in a hole. In the evenings, after the motorcycles left the track, the Fast and Furious rice-car tuner crews would show up in winged Civics with LEDs and fart can exhausts, hand over undisclosed and undocumented amounts of cash to turn some laps while the owners turned their heads. No ambulances or corner workers present for the Asian Mafia (as we called them), but plenty of smoky spinouts, burst radiator hoses and oil on the track to greet the motorcycle racers in the morning. The presence of Oil-Dri spread over the course always made first practice interesting.

I slept in a tent on that cold Canadian ground; my gear consisted of a toolbox and cooler. I used the cooler for a chair and propped the bike on a jackstand. Freezing in the night and scorched by the sun in the day, so overwhelmed by the entire experience that I could not fathom the necessity of creature comforts such as sunblock and pillows. Unequivocally a stranger in a strange land, the racing experience started lonely and scary. I travelled solo and knew no one at the track, frequently I caught myself thinking out loud. The new kid at school had the wrong shoes on and a bad freakin’ haircut. Every time faster riders (which were all of them) passed me it was a like a bully’s shove from behind that makes you shit your pants just a little bit as you wait for the next one that knocks you down.

This all would have been bearable, if the bike didn’t keep breaking down. It was hardly the bike’s fault, the mechanic who was also the rider, sucked. Phil helped as much as he could at home, but he was not one to travel, which left me to my own devices at the track. I ran the wrong carburetion and seized top ends, I over-revved the poor suffering motor and cracked cylinder heads, spun crank bearings, set points incorrectly, over and under tightened fasteners. This goes without mentioning my piss poor riding.

The joy felt that day at the race school was gone. I had a tough nut clenched firmly in my fissured teeth that was threatening to split my jaw. I started to think this may have been a mistake, not for the last time.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Composure in Conformity

That last bit might seem like embellishment or the poet's license, rest assured those were my actual feelings as the events unfolded. I had known fear and some physical pain, but never this sort of debilitating panic. In the past when I would embark on some dangerous stunt it was always possible to calm myself down, hit kill-switch on brain and leap "into the breach". The breach before me appeared to be the gaping maw of hell and it was my fervent desire to simply back away from the queasy and clammy horror enveloping me. They talk of fight or flight, both escaped me while my limbs hardened as concrete and my head filled with helium. It was like the last few moments before anesthesia takes over as the orderlies are wheeling you down the hall to surgery. Consciousness fading fast under the purplish white fluorescent tubes, the sound of the gurney wheels on cold tile, swish of the nurse's scrubs striding alongside, masked faces looking at you, but not at you , stampeding heart, not wanting to be anywhere but home and not hurt, leaving this god-awful nightmare behind, but inevitably arriving at the two doors, masked figures turning to open them with their asses, elbows bent and latex hands aloft....brighter, harsher lights, more cloaked ghosts wielding sterile pain but speaking in a soothing tone that you can't trust.....a chemical sleep creeping in to steal the last vestiges of control over your world spinning off its axis.... artificial darkness that comes oozing in from the outer edges of sight....the red light at the end of the tunnel nothing more than swelling, pain, stitches and blood.....

I'd like to say it was courage that helped me take my next few steps, figuratively and literally. What a wonderful story, triumph of the human spirit over fear! How heartwarming a thing to describe vanquishing those demons of the unknown and setting sail on the seas of adventure! Bullshit. Nothing more than herd mentality moved me in those moments. As the juiced up morons hungry for blood sprang forward to leave the classroom and mount their fiery death steeds, I followed, caught up in their undertow, praying that my stooped shoulders and shuffling feet would not give away the ruse, that no one would ask, "Are you ok?". Void of free will, we eager lemmings waddled to the cliff to be thrown over en masse by Disney drones. I held breakfast down as I stood up, after all I couldn't sit there and ask someone to call my mom to come and get me.

Man and machine did make it on to the racetrack that day. We were slow and shaky, dragging toes and hard parts in all the wrong places. The walls used to corral the redneck wreckfest of Nascar loomed, begging to grind bone into powder, to feast on shattered dreams. By lunchtime the control rider assigned to me was frustrated at my lack of progress, and it was evident on his scowling visage. I was, apparently, having trouble understanding the two word phrase, "Follow me", much to his consternation. I tried, but as hard as I did, I could not keep up. I would blame my bike, but the control rider was going so slow Tiny Tim's powerchair could have kept up.

By sunset things must have improved somewhat, as I was granted a race school card that would enable me to purchase my race license, the next step toward fulfilling my promise.

Immense enjoyment came from being on the track that day, panic and fear melted into elation, despite realizing that I possessed no skill whatsoever. Sure I could make it go, stop and shift gears, but getting the damn thing around a corner in reasonable fashion eluded me. It was amazing to discover even though I had been riding motorcycles in the dirt and on the street for more than ten years, I truly had no clue how to really ride them. Watching the fast riders make it happen in true form was hypnotizing, the subtlety of movement, the preciseness, the ability to pitch something on its side at breakneck speed into a corner knowing you would come out the other side unscathed and on to the next, brilliant. A psychological gauntlet was thrown down, after all it was merely human beings doing these things, just men (and a few bad ass women) who breathed the same air as me and walked the same earth. It was offensive to think that they could do things I could not, called into question my intelligence, even my manhood. This was a thing to be studied, practiced and studied some more, an art that could never be fully mastered. A reason.

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Shannonville Ontario, Canada

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Panic of The Privateer

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(don't laugh, I raced this thing!)

Thus commenced the up and down odyssey that is life as a vintage racing privateer. It was a homespun, blue collar effort to say the least. Along with dinner chair rear stands, rattle can paintjobs and lawnmower fuel valves there were many illegal back road test runs to sort carburetion, because who the hell can afford a dyno? News of Phil's "secret" tests soon spread to the local riff raff who began showing up on their ATV goon buggies wanting to race us. I acquiesced on a couple of occasions to silence the hoodlums and after getting solidly trounced by an old piece of shit motorcycle, the cast from The Hills Have Eyes took their Banshees and Blasters home. It wasn't that my T500 was a particularly fast motorcycle, it was just a lot faster than a silly 4 wheeler with knobby tires on the pavement.

Proper race gear was purchased on close-out at various websites, resulting in some hideous color combinations in the name of frugal safety. I went through about a thousand 1/16" drill bits safety-wiring every nut and bolt on the T500, and had Band-Aids on damn near every finger from safety wire punctures. This thing had already drawn blood, and it hadn't even seen the track yet. When the bike was ready and with me requiring a transfusion, I signed up for the Penguin Motorcycle Road Race School at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon NH, a mere 9 hour drive. It makes a lot of sense to require new racers to take a school prior to being let loose on the race track. The classroom portion was an eye-opener and nearly ended my career before it began.

The instructor spoke of lines, apexes, brake markers and turn in points, body position. Despite trying my best to keep up I was soon utterly lost in the language of riding motorcycles at speed. What a revelation that there is actually a science to going fast. Up until this point I had always believed you just went as fast as you could until you bounced off something. Really. Yet here it was being dissected and discussed for all to see, laid out bare, but like some learning disabled monkey that can't figure out how to peel a banana, it was going right over my muddled head. For the first time I began to realize how completely out of my depth I really was. My level of enthusiasm dropped significantly.

It dried completely up as the classroom session was ending and the instructor and his assistant opened the floor to questions. Some smartass brought up crashing. Lighthearted back and forth banter transformed to sickeningly serious for me as the talk turned to brain injuries that left racing stars as drooling vegetables, paralyzed former world champions, stitches, pins, screws and plates. It went on and on. Ad infinitum. Ad nauseam. Eventually the instructor turned to his assistant and said, "Joe, show 'em your leg."

Joe hoisted his leg on the table for all to see, I hadn't noticed his cane until now. He had a long, vivid scar that ran from his ankle to nearly his knee. With a Cheshire grin he said, "Plates, screws and pins, I've got enough metal in my leg to build you a swingarm".

I have only passed out twice in my life, undoubtedly this was going to be the third. My gut churned with acid as the world grew dim whirling before my eyes. There was no air to breathe even if my heart hadn't been lodged in my throat choking the life out of me. This was a mistake, I had no desire to ride a motorcycle on a racetrack, I was fairly certain I never wanted to swing either one of my good legs over a bike ever again. I did not belong here, I had to get out. These motherfuckers were crazy and trying to chain me up in the asylum. I turned and looked for an exit only to be assaulted by the eager insane faces of the adrenaline addled students twitching and hopping behind me. If I were to make a break for it they would reach out like the tangled branches of some fleshy forest of madness to restrain me. I was trapped, I could not get out.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Fast Friends

I scoured the internet for information, joined message boards and began having telephone conversations at odd hours with racers in England, New Zealand and Australia. Had I any inkling of what I was in for at this point, my heart may have quailed and my resolve would have dissolved. But the sheer, blissful ignorance of youth was still upon me, awash in endorphin laced enthusiasm, the hooks of addiction being gently set, but I still a virgin to the drug. Like Benjamin Braddock climbing the stairs to Mrs. Robinson's bedroom, I could only imagine the ecstasy that lay in store for me. Agony? What agony?

The path to Phil's door got well worn under my feet as I paid for that Suzuki bit by bit. Phil and I became fast friends, and I believe, at first anyways, that his wife Lucy was glad to have me there getting him out from under her feet. He told more of his fantastic stories, which I readily devoured, along with Lucy's home cooking. People asked why I wanted to spend my time with that crazy old bastard, to which I answered, I can't believe you don't want to.

This was a man that had lived, seen and done things that I never would, in possession of an earthy wisdom that came from experience. He was living history tempered by hardship, finely honed wit that was never acerbic, slow to anger, quick to laugh, careful and methodical in his work, always a free thinker in search of a project. Phil had a way of looking at things that was different than everyone else and it came through in the motorcycles he built and the brilliant solutions he came up with. Once, when funds were tight (aren't they always?), he made me a rear bike stand out of a dining room chair, which I have to this day. People called him crazy and a tinkerer, but it was much more. Huxley said, "The secret of genius is to carry the spirit of the child into old age, which means never losing your enthusiasm." That was Phil, always curious, seeking answers to questions others couldn't be bothered to ask, never bound by ideas of what should be done, but only by that which could be. He was of the all but extinct ilk of Renaissance men, not just a thinker and a but doer as well.

It is safe to say that without his knowledge and guidance I probably never would have rolled two wheels on to a racetrack, and if I had, in all likelihood I would now be dead. My balls were much bigger than my brains during those heady days, and my mouth much faster. Phil was a grounding force, the voice of reason that understood the insanity of racing and how to manage its highs and lows. His example made me a better racer and a better man. The debt of gratitude I owe him for helping me forth on one of the greatest journeys of my life cannot be overstated. Phil, it has been a true honor to know you. Thanks.

To read more stories about my early days racing, please visit Murray Bernard's site:

Disclaimer: These stories were written by yours truly many years ago. They are neither polished, edited, nor politically correct. I make no apology for them.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Mentor and Machine

I knew I wanted to do it, hell I will go so far as to say I KNEW I was going to do it, just didn't have the foggiest notion as to how. I was still fairly ignorant to the internet at this point and it's not like rural northern New York is a repository for racing knowledge other than the roundy round smash 'em up car stuff. Enter Fate. Late one afternoon as I was heading home from a ride on my 1979 CB750 (F model, the only cool one) I spotted a two-wheeled conveyance in driveway repose emblazoned with a FOR SALE sign. I passed by. I knew from my quick glance it was a mid to late seventies Japanese bike, and I remember seeing lots of cooling fins on the motor. Air-cooled? Two-stroke? I had to know.

I pulled over and attempted a U-turn, nearly washing the front end out on some gravel on the side of the road, but managed to keep it upright and headed back in the direction of destiny. I arrived, (in more ways than one, only I would not know that until much later). This was what I saw (reasonable facsimile):

Image and video hosting by TinyPic A 1976 Suzuki GT500, two-stroke twin cylinder! I have been enthralled with two-cycle engines since the first time I rode a clapped out RM125 dirtbike as a teenager. I will never forget the abject terror when the front wheel went airborne as the motor came on the pipe, sending the gas tank square into my testicles as I scrambled to keep from flipping over backwards. It was love. Now here was a 500cc two-stroke twin for sale. A firebreather for certain.

I stood looking at the machine, which was in reasonably good shape for a (at the time) 23 year old motorcycle. A strip of black duct tape on a tear in the seat, small rust spot on the tank, little dry rot on the tires, nothing I hadn't dealt with before. "Well, what do you think? Not as nice as the Honda you are riding, but not bad?" I looked up from the diamond in the rough I was quickly falling in love with to see who had spoken. It was Phil.

Phil Lee was known as the best lawn and garden repair guy in 3 counties in Upstate NY. He also loved motorcycles, almost as much as he loved to talk. I had been previously warned about his propensity for chewing the fat, told not to stop there unless I had several hours to spare. I would not be deterred. "It looks good. What are you asking?"

"$375, and it's worth it. Runs good. You know they used to race these back in the day." My ears perked up at that statement.

"They did?"
"Yep, somewhere around here I have some tuning articles from when Ron Grant used to run them."

Four hours later I had read every one of those articles, knew who the hell Ron Grant was, had seen pictures of Phil's old race bikes and heard what would end up being only one tenth of one percent of the stories that wonderful man had to tell. I was also the proud owner, (well one third owner being that my swim coach gig wasn't particularly lucrative) of a 1976 Suzuki GT500. More importantly I had wheedled the promise out of Phil that I would only buy this bike contingent upon the requirement that he help me turn it a real road racer. He thought I was full of shit. I knew better. I rode my Honda home that dark night grinning from ear to ear like a fucking madman, eyes watering in the cold air.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Don't Call It a Mid-Life Crisis

Maybe before going further forward, we should head backwards instead. How does one become a motorcycle road racer in the first place, and then decide to retire from it? That is a long yarn indeed. Motorcycles had been a part of my life since the age of 15, but my fascination with them began much earlier. I remember fighting with my brother over who would get to play with this green plastic dirtbike that had the coolest looking knobby tires you ever saw. We both had fantasies of owning hordes of these adult toys. Be careful what you wish for...

Suffice it to say that I was goaded into motorcycle racing by a friend of mine. I was in my mid-twenties and bored. Early dreams of skateboarding stardom were a distant memory washed away by injury, lack of talent and work ethic. I had a penchant for old motorcycles, born not of the love of historic things, but the reality of the affordable. At this time (late 90s) used Japanese motorcycles over 20 years old were cheap and plentiful and not considered cool or collectable as now (goddamn hipsters), and it seemed that there was an aging offering from the Land of the Rising Sun hidden in every barn and garage, awaiting the new dawn. I rode these clapped out, ill-handling relics all over the city streets until I had my fill of Philadelphia and did my best Return of the Native impression and escaped back to the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York.

The crisp air and wide open spaces of the north country eased the boredom and restlessness to a point, but I found myself riding these old motorcycles faster and faster down pot-holed back roads, urged on
by the overwhelming need to push the flexi-framed machines as hard as physics would allow. There were several close calls, cars, deer, cops and pure over-exuberance on my part. I was old enough to know better but still young enough not to give too many fucks, as most of my faith in my own immortality was still intact. I had spoken to friends about my desire to try road-racing, and I was aware that there were others with the same sickness actually doing it on vintage motorcycles. I spoke more and more about it, saying, I am going to do that someday. Someday.

Someday came when the good friend I previously mentioned called me out on my bullshit. I will never forget what she said to me, "Well, you aren't getting any younger, why don't you stop talking and go ahead and do it for once?'". It was like a slap in the face and kick in the groin followed by someone opening a door in the dim and musty room you are standing in, light and fresh air flooding. Do it.

Friday, November 7, 2014

The Beginning, Again

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When I left motorcycle road racing at the end of the 2007 season with a broken collarbone, ankle and severely dented confidence, I told people, in the best of General MacArthur and Terminator tradition, "I'll be back.", more importantly, I promised it to myself. I wasn't leaving due to the injuries, I had been hurt before, but the financial burden had become too much to bear. My Roaring Twenties had come to an end much later for me than others, and the Great Depression of maturity began to set in.

As the years went by I changed careers, zip codes, girlfriends and pant sizes, but I never forgot that promise. It haunted me, I wasn't getting any younger you see. There were times I convinced myself that this was what getting older meant, taking it easy, slowing down and easing in to the inevitable. One day while comfortably coasting towards the grave and feeling miserable about it, I remembered what an old vintage racer once told me. He said, "Son, some people were just not cut out to be Plain Vanilla, it don't work that way, so don't even try". I may have taken some of his meaning at the time, but it was all those years later I truly understood it. I was trying to be Plain Vanilla, and it wasn't working for me, not in the least. It was time to fulfill my promise to myself. What follow are the stories and misadventures of a not so terribly old road racer. From buying the neglected shitbox of a motorcycle at the top of this page and turning it into a race winning bike. Stay tuned.