Jul 31, 2013

Duluth on the Rocks

00-08-1213_small[Originally published as "Trials Action" in Minnesota Motorcycle Monthly, October/November 2000 about the AMA/NATC Observed Trials Championship rounds (9 & #10) held in Duluth, MN.]

Once again, Minnesota hosted two rounds of the AMA/NATC National Observed Trials Series at the Spirit Mountain Ski Area. This year, the Duluth event turned out to be the climatic moment in the championship. The Duluth organization managed to snag the last two rounds of the 2000 national series and the title was down to the wire. Geoff Aaron, on a Gas Gas this year and attempting to win a sixth US National Championship, needed one third place or better finish in this event to hold off Ryon Bell (Montesa).

Aaron had won both rounds (7 & 8) in Sequatchie, Tennessee and seemed to have it wrapped up. However, in the kind of move that makes spectators love watching Aaron and must drive the factory guys crazy, Aaron was not riding his factory bike for the Minnesota event. He was riding a new, bone-stock Gas Gas that was probably no better prepared than the bikes ridden 90% in the Support classes. On Saturday morning, one of the factory reps just shook his head as he told me, "He didn't even move his shock or his motor over to the new bike. It takes at least two months to break in a shock and he's only had the bike a couple of days."  Obviously, some folks thought Aaron was tossing his 6th championship into the wind.

Add to all this motorcycle stuff, we have Duluth in the summer.

I get the feeling that Twin City'ers think of Duluth as a "little sister city." Sort of the attitude that LA has toward San Francisco. That's, actually, a fair comparison. Without knocking the Cities, because I love this place, Duluth has The Lake and The Hills and all the incredible vistas that come with those two assets. The same weekend as the trials, Duluth had the Bay Front Blues Festival going. What to do and where to go? So many choices and so little time. On August 12, 2000, there was no place on earth I'd have rather been than Duluth, Minnesota.

"The Incredible Invisible Sport," that's what they ought to call it. Observed Trials (OT) is just not descriptive enough. Maybe paying slight attention to my griping about the lack of visibility from the 1998 Duluth event, this year, the Duluth event's promoters advertised in MMM. I saw at least one event poster at a Twin Cities motorcycle shop. Still, when I rode into the Spirit Mountain Ski Area, it was impossible to tell something significant was going on. I rode well into the park before I spotted a single sign. Since I was operating on my usual level of preparation and forethought, I had almost made the assumption that I was here on the wrong weekend or that the event was happening somewhere else. For some odd reason, I hadn't seen a single trailered trials bike in a motel parking lot, so it looked like I was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

image06_smallThat's incredible for a whole collection of reasons. First, in a state where there appear to be as many motorcycles as snowmobiles and jet skis, you'd think anyone who loves motorcycling would be in Duluth for the final rounds of the National Observed Trials Championship. Second, lots of us can argue that trials is the best motorcycling spectator sport. Third, you can't believe what these guys do on motorcycles until you've seen it in person. Fourth, where else will you see huge numbers of $6,000, 150 lb., 250cc motorcycles?

Somewhere I read that Minnesota motorcyclists put on more miles per capita per year than any other state's riders. If you look at the warm weather event schedule, there's something on two wheels going on all the time here. If you take a Saturday afternoon cruise into Minnesota or Wisconsin's back roads, it's a two-wheeled world out there. In March, we fill the Convention Center to look at any damn two-wheeled-associated thing the manufacturers want to sell us. A week later, we packed the Dome to go deaf watching Supercrossers. We're a biking kind of place.

OT is made for spectating. Look at the pictures and notice where the spectators are, relative to the riders. We're practically part of the sections. You can line up, inches from where a world class rider will pass or fail. You can even make smartass comments about how they cheated on a section and get a reaction. How can you beat that?

00-08-1224_smallWe all know that Tom Cruise can't do a stoppie or spin a bike on its front wheel or launch himself into a fight from a moving crotch rocket, but we all saw it a zillion times when MI2 was being previewed on the tube. Some of us don't believe that Cruise can ride a Harley through an empty parking lot, let alone do stunts on a Triumph. With that cynical background, you won't believe what Geoff Aaron or Ryon Bell or any of these top riders can do on a motorcycle, even after you've seen it with your own eyes. If Aaron was taking bets on his being able to leap a tall building with a couple of suspension bounces and a brick for a launch pad, I'd put my money on him.

OT is not only a well kept secret, but also the bikes appear to be vanishing. My old 1974 RL250cc Suzuki weighed about 300 lbs. My 1986 TY350 sports about 225 lbs of pork. A 2000 Bultaco weighs 154 lbs! At this rate, in another decade riders will be strapping trials "bikes" to their feet, like rollerblades.

Ah, the motorcycles. My how much difference two years makes. Last time I was here, I spotted one proto-Montesa-Honda (labeled Montesa everywhere but in Honda's homeland, where Honda calls a Honda "a Honda") in the crowd of Gas Gas, Beta, Fantic, and ancient Yamaha's. This year, they're back! Practically everyone is back.

Montesa, a Spanish motorcycle company that died in 1978, has "partnered" with Honda (Honda bought Montesa's body and casket in the 1980's) to produce frames and motors. Since motorcycle frames and motors are pretty much the heart and guts of a motorcycle, I think it's pretty safe to assume Honda designed the bike. The Montesa Cota 315R is assembled and boxed for shipment in Spain. Whoever made the bikes, there were Cota 315R's everywhere. Some of the 1998 bikes even looked old. If this event was any kind of indication of their success, Honda must be pretty satisfied with its backdoor adventure into OT. Especially after the financial mess that trials turned out to be for Japan in the 1970's.

Two years ago, the Montesa-Honda was barely out of prototyping. This year, Dougie Lampkin won his 4th World Championship in a row on a Montesa-Honda and everybody seems to have jumped on that bandwagon. Next year, Montesa will field a Dougie Lampkin Signature Model. Buy one and I will guarantee that you'll have the coolest, weirdest bike in your block. It will be a $6,000, 150 lb. 250cc motorcycle with a 45mph top speed and more first gears than you can handle (at least 4 of 'em). The Montesa 315R is a 249cc bike. Go figure.

Bultaco, has become yet another reincarnated Spanish motorcycle logo that died near the end of  1979. The dead shell of the company was propped up by the Spanish government until the mid-80's, when the logo was about all that was left of that great company. The thumb's up (Bultaco logo) appears to be live and well in Y2K.

This time, two years ago, the Bultaco Sherco looked like fantastic vaporware. If you were a diligent Yahoo hacker, you could find pictures of the proposed bike on the web. The manufacturer's story seemed so vague that only a true believer would have expected a real motorcycle to come out of that fantasy. This year, if the bike that just dusted you along the spectator trail wasn't a Montesa it was a Bultaco. While the first year bike was a success and a decent bike, the 2000 model is the lightest trialer on the market and the importer is making a serious dent in the established trials manufacturer's sales. Ryan Young, the pre-Aaron five-times National Champion, is behind Bultaco's PR and marketing success and the company has serious financial backing. A couple of manufacturer's reps complained that Bultaco had absorbed almost all of the available advertisement space in the trials press.

This year, Scorpa-Yamaha had a new trialer at Duluth, but no Champ rider. Yamaha appears to be replicating the act that Honda has staked out. That tactic seems to be to do the engineering and let someone else deal with the distribution. Honda, for example, did all of the engineering for the Montesa, but is letting the Montesa brand name take the risk and the credit for the bike. Yamaha is doing the same thing with the French "assembled" Y2K Scorpa. The Scorpa has a Yamaha motor and frame. The price is $5780. The bike has an actual tank, which is properly artistically sculpted. Since the Big Four grossly overestimated the trials market, back in the 1970's, this may be how they are protecting their faces from another of OT's vanishing acts. At any rate, I saw a couple of the Yamaha-Scorpa Y2K's and it's a very flashy looking bike.

00-08-1229_smallTwo years ago, when it seemed that everyone was riding for Gas Gas, the National Champion, Geoff Aaron, was on a Beta. In Y2K, the majority of pros and experts are on Montesas and Bultacos and Aaron has moved over to a Gas Gas. (The Beta booth was still showing Aaron posters and the reps looked pretty lonely and dejected. In a "leading user" sport like OT, when you're out, you're out.)

In a number of ways, Geoff Aaron is smoothly contrary. He don't find him riding the "bike of the year" and he's known for taking hard lines through sections, just to show that he doesn’t have to follow the pack. Or because he is seeing something nobody else can see. Knowledgeable spectators keep an eye out for when Aaron is going to be at a section because you can always count on something specially cool happening when he rides.

While trudging around the 15-mile course, I heard a half-dozen mildly masked criticisms about Aaron's ability to "market himself." He's also reputed to be the only guy on the circuit who's actually making a "good living" riding trials. Could some of the sour grapes be jealousy? Somebody has to break that ground for everyone else to follow. I suppose that guy always has to live with the nitpicking from his contemporaries, though.

I'm not going to argue that I might have a bias, though. I do. My favorite sort of athlete has always been the guys who make really hard stuff seem simple and impossible stuff look just a bit harder. After watching a gaggle of Champs struggle with a section, Aaron can sometimes make it look like someone applied an invisible layer of pavement over the section. Sometimes, he can glide through a pile of rubble so effortlessly that you'd think anyone could do it. Then, someone follows his route through the same section and goes wheels up for his trouble. I love to watch Geoff Aaron ride a motorcycle.

Two years ago, spectators were treated with a world class riding performance from Tommi Ahvala, in exhibition (not in competition) with the US National tour. This year, Ahvala is touring with the "Team Extreme Trials Showcase" and his overpowering presence probably wasn't missed by the American competitors. (Aaron, Kempkes, and Bell also ride the Showcase circuit, when it doesn't compete with the National series.) Two years ago at this same event, he put on a world class show of riding that had to have been humbling to the rest of that year's American riders. I expect jumping Volkswagens and climbing over-sized stairs pays a lot better than getting dirty with the peasants. It looks like the closest Ahvala's going to get to Minnesota is at the Septemberfest in Omaha this . . . September.

00-08-1217_smallSaturday morning started off with a short burst of rain that cut the dust, disturbed the bugs, and made walking the loop so muggy that I had to stop and defog my glasses every 100 yards. But, until about 2:00PM, the rain and cloud cover kept the hiking tolerable and the intermittent showers provided a bit of entertainment and air conditioning. The down side was that walking to the sections was the hardest, slickest hiking I've done in years. By the time I finished my 1st loop, I'd fallen a half dozen times, lost two very nice pens, and protected my camera with my head, twice.

00-08-1216_smallThe first seven sections made for decent spectating and I wandered along with the Support and Expert riders, waiting for the Champs to get started. Saturday's #8 section must have been the designated "I'll pass for five points, Monty" bail-out. I watched a train of Support riders line up to get their tickets punched, without attempting the rocks, after one rider did a 3/4 reverse gainer back down the first ten feet of this section. I heard the phrase, "I got one question for you. How you getting' back down that rock?" so many times that I decided Paul Newman's character in Hombre must be the OT rider's movie hero. Bike after bike ended up with its wheels pointed to the sky and its rider scrambling, sliding, or falling back down this rock. Then, one guy cleaned it and the trail was staked for almost everyone who followed; almost everyone.00-08-1218_small

Checker joke: "How do you tell a Champ from an Expert from a Support rider? The Champs' number plate has a 'champ' decal and the Champs have a real serious look on their faces." There were nine Champs at the Duluth rounds. Most of them looked like they were having a lot of fun, since the championship series was going to be determined more by a complete Geoff Aaron breakdown, rather than a magical great ride from Ryon Bell.

image05_smallBut at least one of the Champs had something different on his face. Native Midwesterner (Nebraska), Jess Kempkes, often looked pained and disappointed. It might be that he was wincing from all the earrings. He's probably working on his Trials des Nations look for Spain, later this year. Jess is one of the most adventurous and entertaining riders on the trials circuit and his look is probably just part of the persona he's building. Whatever, Kempkes rode for a 3rd and a 4th this weekend and picked some spectacular routes through the rocks.

On Saturday, I was despairing for the sport. At 9:30AM, there were only a couple bikes in the parking lot and just a few more at the end of the day. Saturday, the parking lot wasn't even close to full and it wasn't hard to find a spot, on most of the sections, to spectate alone. Sunday, however, was a different deal. There were, easily, as many bikes as cars in the lot and every section had a good turnout of spectators. I guess "On Any Sunday" applies to spectators, too. Some of the Champs-only sections were impossible to get near, if you didn't stake out a spot before the riders got to the section.

Maybe the crowd was a perception thing. The organizers, Upper Midwest Trials Association (UMTA), said they had about 300 paid spectators, both days. They suspected at least 100 more snuck in each day. I must have been following the crowd on Sunday. UMTA was satisfied with the turnout and they may try to turn the Duluth round into an annual event. They're petitioning for a World Round in 2003. If those of you who didn't go to the Nationals miss out on the World competition, I think you should be condemned to a life on four wheels.

Like racing everywhere, the pits were swarming with little rich kids on expensive bikes. I mean "little" kids, like 6-8 year olds. If that doesn't chap your shorts in jealousy, you're a better man than me. At the previous event, in Kentucky, a 6-year old boy was killed, when he collided head-on with another rider. I saw a good number of kids pressing their luck on the practice grounds and in the pits, during this event. Trials isn't any worse at managing marginal parents and their kids than any other sport, but I sure wish it was.

If you still think that OT just isn't a Minnesota sort of motorcycling thing, US Montesa is the national distributor and they're located right here in Glen Prairie. Write 'em at usmontesa@cs.com or call 612-937-8720. Don't forget to tell them that I sent you and they should drop off my 315R Cota sample/payola in Little Canada.

Minnesota Results

Round 9, Aug. 12th Champ class.
Round 10, Aug. 13th Champ class.

1. Raymond Peters (Bultaco)

2. Ryon Bell (Montesa)

3. Jess Kempkes (Gas Gas)

4. Geoff Aaron (Gas Gas)

5. Travis J.Fox (Bultaco)

6. Wilson Craig (Montesa)

7. Dan Johnson (Bultaco)

8. Andy Johnson (Montesa)

1. Ryon Bell (Montesa)

2. Geoff Aaron (Gas Gas)

3. Ray Peters (Bultaco)

4. Jess Kempkes (Gas Gas)

5. Travis J. Fox (Bultaco)

6. Wilson Craig (Montesa)

7. Dan Johnson (Bultaco)

8. Andy Johnson (Montesa)

Along with the Champ class, there were 11 other classes for trialers from Expert to kids to over-60 riders. I heard the oldest rider was around 70 and the youngest was 8.

So, Geoff Aaron finished 4th on Saturday and 2nd on Sunday and he's is the 2000 US National Champion, for the 6th time in that many years. The Trials des Nations competition in Spain is his next big event. I hope he and the other US riders (Kempkes, Raymond Peters, and Cory Pincock are also on the team) kick some butt this year. Don't count on it, though. It's a big time sport in the rest of the world, especially Europe, and their guys have been doing this at a world-class level for a long, long time.

Makin' Enemies Where Ever They Go



Goodie. More reasons for everyone to hate motorcyclists. Thanks guys.

Jul 30, 2013

Explain, Again?


I suppose this could be considered "socialist," "anti-corporate," or "anti-business," and I'm good with being labeled all of that. What I do not understand is with overwhelming evidence demonstrating that cell phones and transportation do not mix, why are cell phone providers not required to disable their toys when operated from a moving vehicle? Cell phone drivers are no more competent than drunks and should be regulated as such (drunks, I mean).

Jul 29, 2013

#13 When Dealers Were Interesting

http://www.amazon.com/Geezer-with-A-Grudge/dp/B007RPQJ24
All Rights Reserved © 2001 Thomas W. Day

Have you ever seen that Monty Python routine where the three old geezers are telling each other about how hard they had it when they were kids? It ends, after the three old liars have topped each other with stories that are so outrageous even dirt bikers wouldn’t believe them, when one of the geezers says, “. . . you try telling young people of today that, and they won't believe you."

This is one of those stories. But it's true. At least, it's mostly true. It's as true as my fading memories can make it.

When I was a kid, we had three motorcycle dealers in my hometown. The upscale shop was a combination farm supply store, John Deere dealer, and a Honda/Harley Davidson dealership. Later in my motorcycling "career," I wore out my welcome at that place by buying at cost, begging, and stealing parts for my Harley 250 Sprint scrambles bike. But before that, I never even considered that dealer as a possible target for my attention because everyone who worked there was reasonably intelligent and they immediately recognized me as a non-customer.

The second option was a shop that sold Suzuki's and televisions. This guy was also semi-intelligent and I couldn't fool them into letting me touch their bikes, let alone ride one.

The third guy was the kind of dealer who made motorcycling . . . accessible. Without "the Captain,"1 I suspect that my hometown would have never had reason to worry about kids on motorcycles. He got his nickname from his costume; leather flight jacket and leather pants, tee-shirt, Marlon Brando riding cap, and lineman's boots. I don't mean that he had a wardrobe of this stuff, I mean he wore the same leather gear, hat, and boots every day of his life. It's possible that he changed his tee-shirt and socks, occasionally. He probably found the inspiration for his gear from "The Wild Ones." Or the movie got the look from him. He was the only one of the three motorcycle dealers who actually rode a motorcycle.

The Captain must have been independently wealthy, too. I can't think of any other way he could have financed his business. His business "plan" was something like, "Buy one of every cool motorcycle made in Europe, cram sixty of them into an abandoned gas station, packed bar-to-fender, and get drunk by noon seven days a week." By the time I was fourteen, this strategy must have been near to exhausting his resources. He hadn't bought a new motorcycle for at least a couple of years and I doubt he'd sold more than one or two in that period.

In fact, in my first nineteen years of life I only knew a couple of riders who'd bought a bike from the Captain. However, almost every kid I knew had obtained a test ride on one of the Captain's bikes. I learned the drill when I was twelve, but didn't make the necessary connections to pull it off until I was fourteen, when I met some of the town drunks at the local cowboy museum. A bottle of cheap whiskey was the ticket for a test ride on one of the Captain's three accessible bikes. Like most things in life, you had to know someone to get anywhere and I, finally, knew a drunk who would buy me a bottle of whiskey if I gave him enough money to buy two. On a Saturday afternoon, after spending $6 on booze, I bicycled to the Captain's shop and negotiated a ride. It was much easier than I'd imagined, even with my pitiful small town haggling skills, because the Captain was already half-soused when I arrived. He waved at the bikes he'd set on the sidewalk and staggered to the back of the shop with my gratuity. After I fumbled around for a really long time, trying to figure out how to start one of the bikes, he came back and fired up a black, twin-cylinder bike, on a couple of kicks, and pointed out the brakes, shifter, and clutch. I'm sure this was significantly short of official MSF training, but it was enough to get me on the road. In retrospect, I'm pretty sure that I got my first bike ride on a late-1950s BMW or Guzzi. At the time, I had absolutely no idea how incredibly cool that was. In my mind's eye I remember the bike as an bucket-seat boxer, so, I'm going to refer to it as a BMW. The truth is, it could have been anything, because I couldn't tell a Harley from a moped.

Heading south from his shop took me straight out of town, without a stoplight or sign or a single turn to negotiate. That was a good thing, in some ways, because it got me through minimal traffic without incident. On the other hand, I managed to ride the bike about fifteen miles before I tried to turn around; and discovered that I didn't have the slightest idea how to maneuver, shift, or stop the bike. I tried to make a twenty-five foot U-turn on an eighteen foot two-lane highway; and received a two second lesson on the difficulty of off-camber turns. I drove the bike into the ditch and fell over.

After a few minutes of intense struggling, unskilled cursing, and several second-degree burns, I got the bike back on two wheels. No matter how hard I kicked the starter, it wouldn't start. I'd started my tour a little before dusk and it was beginning to get dark. I started worrying about what the Captain would say when I walked into his shop and told him where the bike was. I was really worried about the possibility that he'd call my parents and tell them what I'd done to his merchandise. Even at my most creative, I couldn't even begin to design a story that would hold up to my father's interrogation.

I got lucky. A ranch hand stopped, backed up, and parked his pickup on the edge of the highway. He helped me haul the bike back to the road. He grumbled about having to mess with "European junk," but he got the bike straightened out and aimed towards town. When he saw that I didn't have the slightest idea what I was doing, he started it and held it steady while I mounted up, fumbled with the shifter till I found a low gear, and got it rolling toward town. I suspect that we repeated parts of the starting sequence, with him doing the starting, until I found the right gear. I probably stuck with the starting gear for a good bit of the trip back, too.

My luck held all the way back to town. No cars, no turns, enough fuel, and no reason to test my non-existent motorcycling skills until I pulled into the Captain's shop. I stopped the bike by rolling it into the side of his building. I picked it back up and pushed it into position beside the other bikes. The Captain didn't bother to observe my mishandling of his inventory, so I pedaled for home without saying a word to him. He was probably in a booze coma, so it wouldn't have mattered anyway.

You'd think this debacle would have dampened my interest in motorcycles. It didn't. A year or two later, my brother and I became co-owners of a Harley Sprint 250 and I scrambled on that bike until it was completely useless for any purpose. Twenty-eight years later, I still get almost the same kick out of riding my bike to work in the morning as I got on the open road south of my home town. "You try telling young people of today that, and they won't believe you."

July 2001

Footnotes:
  1 Max Stauffer (the Captain), as remembered by my father.

Jul 27, 2013

Start Seeing Corners and Road Signs

The Star Trib ran an article, sort of parallel to Joe Soucheray's pitiful "goodbye motorcycling" plaintive cry of the wimpy conservative, Rash of Motorcycle Deaths Worries Minnesota Riders, Officials (gotta love the lack of editorial literacy in the Trib's headlines). The gist is "Total fatalities, so far, are up 60 percent over the Department of Public Safety’s tally at this time last year. (The 2012 number later grew once more reports were compiled.)" More to their point, "Since January, more than half of those killed in motorcycle crashes statewide were over the age of 45." Why that surprises anyone is beyond my comprehension.

The one thing I liked about this article was the early sum-up of the season's most typical crashes, "One man, with his wife on board, lost control of his motorcycle on July 4th, killing them both. Another veered off the road on a sharp curve and struck a road sign, dying. A Coon Rapids couple was killed when they crossed the centerline and collided with a pickup." Again, this proves that my intense dislike for the "Start Seeing Motorcycles' campaign is justified. Until we are a small percentage of what is killing motorcyclists, motorcyclists need to quit pointing at other motorists and start learning how to ride or, like Joe, get the hell off of the road.

This is mystifying, "Meanwhile, fewer riders are getting trained. Despite a record number of licensed riders, sign-ups for state safety courses have fallen from their peak in 2008. This season, the Minnesota Motorcycle Safety Center canceled some classes because of low registration." About 1/4 of my teaching season has been cancelled due to low turnout. It's not unusual for August classes to cancel, but early July?

A newbie rider, Harley-shopping guy, Roger Holmes, 59, said it all with his Trib article quote, “It makes you feel good. It makes you feel younger.” Holy crap. One more sucker buying into the marketing bullshit. Dude, you need to have someone take a picture of you and your wife on your hippobike. Put it on your mirror and stare at it every day until you wise up and realize that you not only don't look younger, you look downright silly wallowing around the road on that porker. Exercise will make you feel younger. Eating smart, giving up smoking, drinking less (way less, for you cruiser characters), and reducing the stress in your lives by avoiding stupid impulse buying and idiotic debt will all make you feel younger (and look younger than your dumber Boomer friends).

So-called "motorcycle advocacy groups" are doing everything they can to keep motorcycle deaths high and to kill public roadway access for future motorcyclists in their usual way. This article keeps that trend in place with all sorts of stupid statements. NHTSA has been trying to force some consciousness into state laws by continually chanting the FACT that "helmets cut the risk of a motorcycle fatality by 37 percent. " The let's-kill-motorcycling groups, waste time and energy on fighting helmet laws with all sorts of inconsistent arguments. In this article, I was incredibly disappointed to hear Rider Academy owner/coach, Jed Duncan, say that he opposes helmet laws with the tired and lame argument, “Everybody should be able to choose. At the same time, I wear a helmet every single time I’m on a motorcycle.” If drivers can't "choose" to drive without seatbelts while protected by well-designed vehicles and front/side airbags, what makes motorcyclists special? If you have an answer for that, don't waste it on me. Keep chanting it to your "loud pipes saves anti-social assholes" buddies.

The author of the Trib article actually watched a BRC. One of her comments caught my least favorite part of our classroom song-and-dance, when she described how the MSF program has students watching "short videos of attractive people checking their bikes before a ride." Talk about hyping the motorcycle marketing bullshit about feeling "young" on a bike. About 3 of the people in the entire video series look like our typical calls, but even the least-fit-to-ride old lady imagines herself looking like the Angela-clone on her Harley. This is clearly the influence on the MSF from the organization's sponsors, the manufacturers. If a real safety organization had anything to do with motorcycle training, there would be a section on the aftereffects of crashing. Our version of the old "Highway of Death" programs the pre-political correctness drivers' training programs always ran.

Nothing about this trend is good for motorcycling.

Jul 26, 2013

The World's Fastest Indian

fastes1

I'd read a review, in a local news rag that I'll leave unnamed (bullshit, it was City Pages), that really panned this film and had almost convinced me to take a pass on it.  The reviewer said that Sir Anthony Hopkins made an "unconvincing" Indian.  I hadn't read anything else about the story, so I assumed that Hopkins made as unconvincing an Indian as he had a serial murderer in "Hannibal." A few days later, at a theater preview, I discovered what the movie was really about.  Imagine my surprise when I discovered that the "Indian" in The World's Fastest Indian was a motorcycle.  As terrific an actor as Hopkins can be, I'm pretty sure he couldn't believably impersonate a motorcycle, so I have to assume the reviewer was motorcycle-impaired.

Like most things that aren't right in front of me, I promptly forgot about watching for the film to appear locally.  One evening a friend called to rave about The World's Fastest Indian, a few days after the film opened here. My wife and I saw it a few days later and we both loved the film.  My friend, apparently, thinks that I doubt his judgment, because when I told him that we appreciated his recommendation he was really surprised.  I did, though.  I think this was as good a film as I've seen in many years. Even if a Harley biker, half-deaf drummer, turned me on to the movie. 

I have a habit of chasing down historical sources, when a book or a movie introduces me to a new subject.  Indian caused that kind of activity in the following weeks.  Movies tend to believe that viewers are incapable of accepting the incredible stories of real life and this film is another example of that bet-hedging.  The real story of Burt Munro is probably too amazing to be believed.  That doesn't stop me from wishing the movie had been a little closer to reality, though. 

Burt Munro was born in 1899, just in time to see the beginning of the internal combustion age.  Burt was a mechanical wizard, self-taught and intuitively brilliant.  He started a love affair with an Indian Scout that began in the early 1920s and kept that flame burning until he died in 1978.  The movie pictures him as being a poor hobbyist with a Bonneville dream, which is only a little true.  Munro was setting New Zealand speed records as early as 1957 (131.38 mph at Oreti Beach1).  The movie has Munro busting 200mph on his first try at Bonneville.  His 1962 850cc world record of 178.971 mph was pretty incredible but not quite as incredible or simple as the movie would have you believe. 

What the movie does incredibly well is portray this man's spirit, ingenuity, and resourcefulness.  Munro did build his own cylinders out of scrap iron and he fabricated his own cooling fins for the cylinders.  He designed, from intuition and experiments, his bike's aerodynamic bodywork.  He rode that cobbled-together piece of backyard engineering past 200 mph multiple times, including at least one 200+ mph Bonneville crash that was incredibly portrayed in the movie. 

This is not just an Anthony Hopkins movie, either.  Every character in the film, from the New Zealand bikers Munro blasts past on the beach to his New Zealand friends and supporters to the so-far-from-today's U.S. port authority officials to the wild 1960's L.A. and desert folks who help and hinder his quest, adds something approaching the best in humanity to the story.  The community of go-faster folks at Bonneville will make you wish you could go back 40 years in time, just to be there when it all happens. 

The worst documentary "sins" of the The World's Fastest Indian are sins of passion.  The film maker and Hopkins busted their asses to make a movie that would put you inside of Munro's head.  Vicariously, we experience a little of the adventure he took on when he boxed up his beloved Indian and shipped it to America to take on the world's fastest terrain.  It's practically unimaginable, completely inspiring, and terrific fun.  You will love this film, I guarantee it.

1 Check out http://www.indianmotorbikes.com/features/munro/munro.htm for a terrific history of this incredible homespun motorcycle engineer and rider.

All Rights Reserved © 2006 Thomas W. Day

 

From: Charles Hannah
Sent: Wednesday, September 27, 2006 7:33 PM

Dear Thomas

Many thanks for sending us your review. While Roger took some poetic licence in telling the story of Burt Munro, for more than 30 years (he first wrote the script in the early 70's having made a documentary with Burt) he resisted pressure from numerous film companies to make Burt younger and dramatically change the facts. Let me comment on some of the things you say in your review:

I have a habit of chasing down historical sources when a book or a movie introduces me to a new subject. Indian caused that kind of activity in the following weeks. Movies tend to believe that viewers are incapable of accepting the incredible stories of real life and this film is another example of that bet-hedging. The real story of Burt Munro is probably too amazing to be believed. That doesn’t stop me from wishing the movie had been a little closer to reality, though. THAT'S A LITTLE TOUGH.

Burt Munro was born in 1899, just in time to see the beginning of the internal combustion age. Burt was a mechanical wizard, self-taught and intuitively brilliant. TRUE - DOESN'T THE FILM SHOW THIS? He started a love affair with an Indian Scout that began in the early 1920s and kept that flame burning until he died in 1978. ALSO TRUE. The movie pictures him as being a poor hobbyist with a Bonneville dream, which is only a little true. WHY DON'T YOU GET HOLD OF ROGER'S 30-YEAR OLD DOCUMENTARY ABOUT BURT - I BELIEVE MAGNOLIA WILL BE INCLUDING IT IN THEIR DVD - AND YOU WILL SEE THAT WHEN HE WENT TO BONNEVILLE HE WAS LIVING IN A CINDER BLOCK HOUSE EXACTLY LIKE THE ONE IN THE FILM. IN FACT, ROGER INSISTED THAT IT WAS IDENTICAL - MUCH TO THE CONCERN OF OUR WONDERFUL CAMERAMAN WHO WOULD HAVE LOVED AN ADDITIONAL LIGHT SOURCE. BY THIS TIME, BURT'S PASSION FOR HIS BIKE HAD MEANT THAT HIS WIFE HAD THROWN HIM OUT AND HE REALLY WAS LIVING ON VERY LITTLE.  Munro was setting New Zealand speed records as early as 1957 (131.38 mph at Oreti Beach*). TRUE BUT DOES THE FILM SUGGEST OTHERWISE? The movie has Munro busting 200mph on his first try at Bonneville. OK, THIS WAS FOR DRAMATIC PURPOSES - THE FILM IS ALREADY 2 HOURS LONG AND ANY LONGER WOULD HAVE PUT AUDIENCES OFF. His 1962 850cc world record of 178.971 mph was pretty incredible but not quite as incredible or simple as the movie would have you believe.

But overall, your review was positive and we're happy about that.

With thanks

Charles

Charles Hannah, Executive Producer

Jul 25, 2013

I Can See the Future

I had this kid in a BRC this weekend (the picture is a link to the video). A big fan of being gearless, wallowing in his self-prescribed-and-never-a-wish-denied ADD, unable to stop, start, or perform any maneuver consistently, and proud of it all. He was a loose cannon all day long and failed the final test, miserably (30 points). However, the slightly nutty rules of under-18 means that he will get the same paperwork as if he had passed the BRC, take that paper to the DMV, pass or fail their test, and if he passes he'll be on the road scaring the crap out of everyone in his path. Until he video records his own crash, like the goofball above.

Everything I have seen in the last 12 years of teaching motorcycle safety classes tells me we need massively more difficult-to-obtain licensing testing and draconian enforcement of laws prohibiting riding without a license; first offense, confiscation of the vehicle, second office, confiscation of the vehicle, and so on. "Ride it, you lose it."

Jul 24, 2013

Joe Gives It Up

Right wing blogger, Joe Soucheray, has decided to join the ranks of the four-wheeled and disabled. He was the epitome of the late-life-biker when he bought his first motorcycle and has been some sort of totem for that crowd ever since. As he said, "I didn't have anything in my experience that would have protected me from that. I didn't have anything in my bag of tricks that could have saved me from an oncoming vehicle not seeing me and making a left turn in front of me." Obviously, there are lots of things every experienced rider uses for evaluating and planning for those regular occurances. Joe just didn't have either the experience, judgement, or skills to be a regular motorcyclist and, finally, he realized that being an occasional, recreational garage-candy owner is fuckin' dangerous.

For Joe, motorcycling was always about propping up his aging self-image. A motorcycle was a tool to make himself feel cool. He could wallow in "the potato-potato-potato thwap of a Harley, or the silky smooth revs of a Japanese bike, or the Spitfire flying across the English Channel vibe of a British ride. I rode to ride, not to get anywhere quickly. I didn't need the bike for my daily commute and never used a bike to commute." If we kept statistics on that kind of rider, I'm certain they would be grossly overrepresented in crash data.

Good move, Joe. Now, keep your cell phone in your pocket and try to concentrate on driving your car without killing the rest of us.

Jul 22, 2013

#12 Never Do That Again

http://www.amazon.com/Geezer-with-A-Grudge/dp/B007RPQJ24
All Rights Reserved © 2001 Thomas W. Day

I admit that I'm unusually repelled by the idea of buying a new . . . anything. The fact that the act of driving a new bike off of the dealer's lot is economically identical to gathering a hard-earned pile of cash and throwing 10-50% of that pile into the wind may forever keep me from owning another new motorcycle. My last experience with this form of "investment" came in 1974, so I've been suffering this trauma for a long time. That's all I'm admitting and you'll have to live with any other remorse you think I should suffer.

All that said, buying used bikes is another form of self-mutilation. Over my 35 years of buying used vehicles, I've formed a collection of rules that, if I followed them, could prevent a lot of the usual used-bike/car misery. The first of those rules is "never buy a motorcycle from a kid."

If you force me to define "kid" in chronological terms, I'd have to arbitrarily say anyone under 40 is, more than likely, a kid. However, I've known 15-year-old adults and 65-year-old kids. So numbers don't do this psychological defect much justice.

Kids are destructive little monsters who think their motorcycles (and cars) are educational toys. There's nothing wrong with that logic, until the little motorcycle mangler decides to sell his fuckin' Erector set with all the missing, stripped, bent, and broken bits "as is." It's only when a real person gets stuck with a vehicle that was previously owned by the Kid that a capital crime has been committed. Unfortunately, the capital or corporal punishment usually gets played out on the buyer, not the mind-fuckingly-stupid Kid.

The most fatal flaw in buying a bike from the Kid is that the little dweeb thinks he's a better engineer than the folks who designed and built the bike. If it were true, this would be a more than typically pointless Geezer rant. But it's not. The kinds of things most often "re-engineered" by the Kid are exhaust systems, handlebars, lighting, threaded holes (especially sparkplug holes), brakes, suspension parts, fuel systems, and critical bits of the power train. Not a one of these areas were easy design tasks for the skilled engineers who built the bike. Without exception, the Kid will whack away at any one of these areas without a clue in his head or a skill in his hands.

When I'm shopping for a used bike, comments made by the current owner about shade tree work done in any critical area of the motorcycle's mechanics becomes a deduction in my valuation of the bike. In my best moments, I'm ruthless about taking those deductions from the price of the bike. In my usual moments, I'm not nearly vicious enough. Most Kids won't consider messing with a motorcycle unless they have 1) already crashed it or 2) have found an easy way to really mess up the bike's operation or 3) Daddy gave them a pile of money for Xmas and they want to "decorate" the motorcycle with useless crap that suddenly became affordable. Knowing this, you can be realistic about the damage done and the resulting price deduction. However, it's hard to keep all that in mind when you just want to buy a bike for cheap and go for a ride.

Even if the seller is 95 years old and only rides the Goldwing at Shriner parades, you should probably make the paranoid, or conservative, assumption that he's the Kid. With that thought in mind, start from the front of the bike and work your way back, looking for mangled bolt heads, loose stuff, non-stock stuff, and beer cans hammered into clutch plate shims. When you finally do get to ride the bike, be critical. Don't assume that any odd quirk in the bike's performance is something you need to get used to, assume it's an introduced design flaw, courtesy of the Kid. Don't even consider hoping the quirk will go away after you ride it a while. Fix it before it fixes you. From here, I'm tempted to go into a marginally rational rant about aftermarket pipe, carb tuning kits, and suspension modifications that turn the bike into a self-destructing, back-breaking vehicle that will cripple you in any number of ways.

But I won't because I've already been there and it makes me crazy. I will suggest that every fastener between the top of the tank to the manifold clamps is probably cross-threaded. Buy stock in Emhart Fastening Technologies (the folks who make Heli-Coils) before you get started.

Even better, do what I hope I will do the next time I come upon a Kid's bike being offered for a great price; walk away and don't look back. It's not worth the hassle or hazard. Repeat after me, "I've been here before and I will never do anything that dumb again." Or do like me, forget that mantra and spend most of the riding season returning your bike to the condition real engineers intended.

June 2001

Jul 20, 2013

This Isn’t A Question of “Be Careful of What You Wish For”

barry-strang-photos-4 Barry Strang wanted to be a Harley owner his whole life. After 38 years of wishing, he bought one and killed himself on it within a few minutes of riding it off of the dealer’s lot. The local newspaper reported his crash and death, “He was riding his long-awaited Harley Davidson northbound on Highway 789 when he negotiated a right-hand curve and, for unknown reasons, collided with the drive axles of a truck tractor, according to Wyoming Highway Patrol report. Strang was ejected from the motorcycle and went under the tractor-trailer. His helmet flew 30 feet away.”

I suspect everyone who reads this blog knows that Mr. Strang was not killed by his 38 years of wishing, but by his lack of motorcycle training and experience. Nothing in the article says he was in any way a trained or skilled motorcyclist. In fact, the article implies that he might not have been legally licensed. “Officials said the collision may have been because of Strang's unfamiliarity with his new motorcycle.”

barry-strang-photos-1 He was following a semi pulling two tanker trailers and plowed into the back of the second trailer in a curve. It’s an easy-to-visualize crash, especially given the low state of rider awareness and skill exhibited by an overwhelming number of bikers. It was avoidable in multiple ways. Strang’s son imagines that “Dad died with a smile on his face.” Those of us who have had jelly-side-down moments know that is a happy fantasy. Barry Strang’s last moments were filled with panic. All of his reactions to that panic were wrong and that builds momentum to the stress and fear. Supposedly, he died instantly and that is probably the best we can hope for him.

It’s a sad, too often repeated story. I wish motorcycle ownership had worked out better for Mr. Strang. No one deserves the pain and disappointment his family and friends are feeling now. There should be some accountability from the dealer for sending this man into traffic with minimal safety gear (His helmet “flew” off?) and, possibly, no license, from the state for having such lax vehicle sales and dealer licensing laws, and, even, from the manufacturer for promoting a lifestyle instead of being responsible about including the risk and injury statistics in their advertisements. Automobiles and motorcycles and bicycles are dangerous devices and they require skill, concentration, training, and they should only be for sale to those meeting appropriate standards.

I’ve said it before, a motorcycle is not a fuckin’ wheelchair. You can get into more trouble faster on a motorcycle than any vehicle I know of. That ought to be the message so-called motorcycle safety organizations are shouting to the rooftops. Screw “Start Seeing Motorcycles." Fuck “Loud Pipes Save Lives.” And everyone who is wasting air arguing against helmet laws ought to have to scrape up one of these catastrophes for every time that stupidity is uttered. Our ads ought to say “get trained or get killed,” “AGAT or DOA, your choice,” and a battery of nasty crash pictures should follow to emphasize the point. Stuff like this is bullshit and anyone who minimizes the risk and responsibility deserves a world of hurt and misery.

Yeah, I’m pissed off. Deal with it. I suspect I would have liked Barry Strang and I’m pretty sure I would have liked his family. He deserved better treatment from motorcycling, but he didn’t get it.

Jul 19, 2013

The Lawson Blue Ridge Camping Hammock

All Rights Reserved © 2005 Thomas W. Day

lawson_entryI admit that I'm a camping wimp in my old age.  I used to enjoy sleeping on the ground after a long day's hike or ride, but I have too many marginally healed bones, worn out joints, and a fragile back.  The basic camping adventure is outweighed by the pain and lack of sleep.  So, a couple of decades ago, I started carrying a small nylon hammock in my gear and a nylon tarp in case it rained.  I sleep like a baby in a hammock and am about as happy swinging from a tree as I am in a Motel 6 (except for the lack of hot showers) .

A few years ago, on a business trip to Florida, I found myself with a few spare days to burn in the Keys.  After renting a kayak and setting paddle for some small islands, I bumped into a camper comfortably holed-up in a really cool looking hammock/tent.  He was hanging from a clump of Mangrove trees, suspended over the water, reading a book, and ignoring the cloud of bugs that were attached to the hammock's mosquito netting.  Back home, I searched for the kayaker's gear on the Net.  I found several tent/hammock manufacturers and Backpacker Magazine had done a "shootout" a couple of years earlier.  That article pointed me toward the Lawson Blue Ridge Camping Hammock. 

During last year’s 4th of July holiday, I did a two day trip to the Apostle Islands where the camping conditions were varied enough to constitute a motorcycling "test" of my hammock.  Day one, the temperature was in the mid-90s most of the day and the Minnesota state bug/bird was in full attack mode.  The only way I could get any rest outdoors was to quickly put up my hammock and dive into the protective netting.  The fact that I could find a site, put the unit together (in a way that provided comfort and a view), and load it and seal it up with myself and my reading material in less than five minutes made rest stops practical. 

lawson-rainfly Friday night, my island was hit with a rain storm that left the ground soaked and littered a few leaves on the rain fly, but I slept through it and can not report on the storm's severity.  In the morning, I was dry and comfortable and that's about all I can tell you about the night's weather activity. 

Saturday night, I thought I’d found the perfect isolated campsite until about 4AM when some drunken brats showed up in their shiny new brat-trucks.  I gave up on sleep and fired up a reading headlamp and finished the book I'd started earlier that day.  About 20 minutes after the brat-pack got their mini-forest fire started, a monsoon blew in to our corner of the island.  The weather flipped from calm and mostly warm to gusty, pouring rain, and downright cold in about ten minutes.  The brats ran for their club cabs and watched their campsite and most of their food blow into Lake Superior.  Screaming obscenities, they drove back to mommies' hotel room or wherever morons go for shelter. 

lawson_inside_view I buttoned up the rain fly and swung in the wind for the next hour or so.  Lightning was so intense (and close) that I could read by it through the netting and rain fly. Other than being a bit nervous that the trees I'd tied myself to might end up blowing out to sea, I was comfortable through the part of the storm through which I stayed awake.  I drifted off and the sun woke me up about the time my stomach began its usual demands for food. 

I'd parked my bike on a large flat rock, so it was where I'd left it and the buttoned-down rain cover had kept my gear dry and in place.  There were several trails of moisture from the sides of the hammock to the low point of the hammock, about where the middle of my back had been during the night.  My bag and back were slightly damp and I was a little chilled.  The temperature had dropped to the low 50s during the night and I'd have been chilled without being a little wet.

lawson-bagged_smallThe hammock, poles, and rain fly fit, without the stuff sack, in one side of my Eclipse P-38 saddlebags.  There is room for a light blanket, a sleeping bag liner, or a small amount of gear in the same bag.  The hammock weights about 5 lbs and (if you can't find trees to hang it from) can be used, with a couple of tie lines and four tent stakes, as a one-person tent.  For one-up adventure touring, I'm convinced that this is the way to go.  Now that my hammock has proven its weather resistant capabilities, I'm planning on a lot more weekend bike camping trips.

Jul 15, 2013

#11 Keep Yourself Alive

http://www.amazon.com/Geezer-with-A-Grudge/dp/B007RPQJ24
All Rights Reserved © 2001 Thomas W. Day

Instead of indulging one of my many grievances against the universe, I want to actually try to babble about something I've learned in the last year. This is really obvious, in retrospect, but it’s something that practically escaped me for too long. It's April 3, 2001 and I rode my bike to work for the first time this year. The world is a much nicer place than it was last week, or has been for the last five months. I've lost much of the urge to squish the life out of the first living thing that irritates me. I even skipped coffee this morning and I'm not falling asleep while I write this. A buddy came by and said he could see the Disney bluebirds circling my cube. But doing my first 2001 ride to work isn't the point of this non-rant, as nice an event as that was.

A year and a half ago, at the end of the 1999 riding season, I had whipped past a half-century of life and thirty-five years of motorcycling. I was beginning to feel someone else's age, someone disgustingly old and, practically, feeble. As you might have figured by my generally bad attitude, I am an office drone. For the last nine years, I've spent my working days at a desk, surrounded by cube walls, doing mindless repetitive tasks that could be taught to a marginally intelligent, boredom-tolerant chimp. While that brilliant career plan has allowed me the time and motivation to develop all sorts of attitude, it hasn't done much for my physical condition. In fact, it's nearly crippled me.

Until I moved to Minnesota five years ago, I'd been able to justify the hazards of my motorcycling habit by burning up fifteen to twenty thousand miles a year, commuting and touring, on my bikes. Minnesota winters, a new grandson, a house that needed more work than it will ever be worth, and general purpose laziness cut those miles in half for three years and, in the summer of 1998, I began to think that I might be getting too old to ride a bike.

I'd get up in the morning, look at my way-too-tall-for-my-28"-inseam Yamaha TDM 850 and my way-too-much-like-a-desk-chair SUV, and ride to work in the gas-guzzling desk chair. When I did ride, I made myself nervous. I was not the rider I used to be. I wasn't aggressive when I needed to be aggressive. I wasn't strong enough to deal with the bike when I got into trouble. I had my first-ever street bike accident early that spring. I started thinking about buying a cruiser, to compensate for being too fat and stiff to swing my leg over a real motorcycle. I was starting to see the point that other geezer bikers make when they claim that helmets limit visibility and loud pipes began to seem like a useful defensive maneuver. Too often, I couldn't see who was beside me, in heavy traffic, let alone what was behind me.

The problem was not that I’m getting old. It’s that I was out of shape. You can’t do anything about being old, but you can usually fix being out of shape.

Somewhere, years ago, I read that good luck isn’t something that’s happening all the time, it comes when it’s important. That’s why it’s called “luck.” In my case, my desire to hang on to motorcycling coincided with my need to get back a chunk of my life before it was too late. I love motorcycling so much that the idea of quitting, selling my bike, and doing all of my traveling and commuting in a four-wheeled birdcage scared the snot out of me. That nasty prospect convinced me to look for some kind of conditioning routine that would help me regain enough flexibility and strength to stay on two wheels. I’m lucky to have had motorcycling for motivation.

For me, the activity turned out to be cranking up a regular yoga routine. I started light and short, fifteen minutes a day, and have worked up to forty-five minutes to an hour, five or six days a week, in the last year. At my last physical, my doc called me “an owl,” when he saw how far I could swivel my head and torso. Last I heard, he was starting his own workout routine. I have rediscovered the joys and rewards of being able to bend over to pick up dropped stuff, without screaming in pain. My balance is better than it’s ever been. I lost 25 pounds and gained strength and stamina.

This isn't a yoga promotion. This isn't a for-geezers-only column. Riding a motorcycle is physically demanding, somewhat hazardous, and more fun than anything you can do on four wheels (except sex, which is nearly impossible on a moving motorcycle). Motorcycling is a sort of double-edged sword. It's dangerous, but living is dangerous. Living without a little danger, an edge, something to crank up your juices, is almost pointless. That's why we love motorcycles.

Just owning a motorcycle isn't enough to keep yourself alive on a bike. Doing the MSF Experienced Rider class every year or two is nothing more than a survival tactic. The things you learn in a racing class or off-road on a dirt bike may be the difference between riding tomorrow or getting to know your doctor really well. But that's not enough. Every racer has some kind of cross-training routine to keep sharp and fit.

They don't just do those things to win races. They do them to stay alive and uninjured. Strength, flexibility, balance, and response time are all physical characteristics that can be improved. You can cover your pickup with "Start Seeing Motorcycles" stickers, but the only person watching out for you on the road is you.

If you can't do the job, you're screwed.

Since this anti-rant is a complete failure at my life’s purpose in ticking off all six of the Geezer column’s fans, here’s a web-link that ought to do the job for you: www.dennisjsullivan.com/loudpipe.htm. Enjoy.

May 2001

Jul 14, 2013

Leave Us Outta This Shit!

motrocycle Big Government douchebags in North Carolina (go figure) swapped a discussion and bill about Motorcycle Safety for an under-the-sheets anti-abortion ambush on July 10. A day later, the wingnut bill was passed and that set off a firestorm of protests from a collection of people who had been deluded into imagining that the North Carolina state government represented the people of that state. Now, women’s rights protestors can hate us, Republicans, and fundamentalists all in the same group.

I want to go on record that I have nothin’ to do with anything related to Republican politics. I am solidly one of the 99% and don’t even thing living people need to go on livin’, let alone the unborn. The more people there are in the world, the less room there is for me and anyone who doesn’t want to be a parent is clearly making a positive contribution to the world. There are more than enough unwanted kids on the planet. Hell, everyone who thinks we can go on spewing carbon into the atmosphere, cranking up the earth’s surface temperature, and polluting the oceans is clearly convinced that there is no point in worrying about the future the X-gen will suffer, let alone their kids and their grandkids. So, noise or now, we’re all on the same side. I don’t want people litterin’ my planet and the “other side” doesn’t want any people at all in the clearly foreseeable, and uncomfortably near, future.

So, why can’t we all just get along and get back to working on motorcycle safety. Seems like something we could all agree on; except for helmet laws, reasonable licensing standards, noise abatement, lane sharing and filtering, and pirate parade permits.

Jul 13, 2013

BOOK REVIEW: Top Dead Center

TDC

by Kevin Cameron, 2007

All Rights Reserved © 2008 Thomas W. Day

Kevin Cameron's first book, The Sportbike Performance Handbook, has been in my library since 1998. Between that first book and his columns and articles in Cycle and Cycle World, much of my motorcycle engineering education has been provided by this one author. Part of the magic of Sportbike Performance Handbook is Kevin's ability to efficiently and clearly write about complicated subjects while making them understandable and interesting. The problem with that first book is the subject, regardless of Cameron's skill, is complicated. 

When I learned Cameron had written Top Dead Center, I put off reading it because I'm still digesting that first book. With a title this mechanically focused, I figured the new book would be an update or enhancement to his original subject. However, while browsing at the RiderWearhouse in Duluth, I picked up Top Dead Center and discovered it was a completely different animal. I was surprised to find that he has written something for anyone with any interest in the physics of motorcycle design or the psyche of the people who race or build these machines. I am not a knowledgeable road racing fan and I know almost nothing about many of the racers and designers highlighted in Top Dead Center.  Regardless of my ignorance, I found myself involved in their stories and enlightened by his analysis of their styles and personalities. Cameron's precise, elegant, insightful approach to crafting words is well-suited to deep analysis of physics, machines, and, particularly, the people who design and ride the machines. Like few other "motorcycle books,” his new book is about many things beyond motorcycles and motorcycle racing.

The book's chapters are broken into segments: "The Racing Life," "Racers," "Moguls, Mavens, and Mechanics," and "Inner Workings" and each chapter holds a collection of articles on the chapter subject. This provides an opportunity for the ADD personality to hop from one essay subject to another, totally wrecking the careful arrangement of stories that Cameron and his editor have selected to create the flow to the book. However, I don't feel guilty for exercising my version of this mental disability. Once I was finished with my initial spasmodic approach, I settled into a cover-to-cover study and re-read the bits I'd skipped to earlier with enhanced comprehension and appreciation.

A good example of the insights Cameron has provided into the mental aspect of riding is the essay Pile with Style, an enlightening look at crashing on the race track that ought to be eye-opening for those of us who are not AGAT (All the Gear, All the Time) fanatics. Consider this quote from Mike Baldwin, "There's a lot you can do to keep from getting hurt after you're down and sliding." Fall from Grace, one of Cameron's most personal pieces describes a crash at the end of a USGP that should make racers and street riders reflect on when “it's safe."

Kevin's descriptions of his experiences as a race team-manager, mechanic, and designer provide insight into his credentials as a motorcycle and racing expert and how he came to know the people who use or create the technology. When Kevin writes about the people who race, manufacturer, tune, or finance the best, fastest motor-vehicles in history, you get to know them almost personally. Cameron is famous for his ability to explain complicated mechanical principles. He deserves special praise for being able to describe the complicated people who use these principles to design and race motorcycles.

At the core, Top Dead Center is a demonstration of Kevin Cameron's ability to tell a good story and to lead us to knowledge we would not attempt to gain on our own. To quote a Cameron quote, "As racer/engineer Albert Gunter once told a young Dick Mann, 'Don't try to beat people with their own methods--they've had them longer than you. Find your own way, something nobody else has.'" Kevin Cameron has found his own way as a writer and all of his readers are better for it. If you have even the slightest interest in motorcycles and racing, Cameron wrote this for you. If you ride, race, or wrench, you'll be better at those things after reading Cameron's collection of essays. If you enjoy the work of a writer in his element and in his prime, Top Dead Center is a book you will often return to for entertainment.

The review copy of this book was provided courtesy of RiderWearhouse (www.aerostich.com).

Jul 12, 2013

Kevin Cameron Interview Text (Complete Interview)

All Rights Reserved © 2008 Thomas W. Day

Last year, I found myself the lucky correspondent in an extended email conversation with Kevin Cameron as the result of an article I was working on about motorcycle journalists and writers. An editor had fired up my curiosity by claiming that Cameron was a motorcycle writer, like many, who needed massive editorial correction to appear sentient. Several years ago, I'd heard Kevin in a technical presentation and suspected he probably wrote at least as well as he spoke. DynoTech's editor, Jim Czekalaof, told me, "The thirty of so technical articles Kevin Cameron has contributed to DynoTechResearch are printed exactly as received. Since you've heard him speak at some technical function, you know that Kevin speaks, even off the cuff, exactly like he writes. I doubt that he has a team of editors helping him in his home office." Jim forwarded my query to Kevin and a conversation began that I hope will continue for a long time.

After reviewing Kevin's most recent book, Top Dead Center, I continued my lucky stumbling when he consented to an interview about the book and his life in motorcycling.

MMM: Is this a good time?

KC: It might be.

MMM: I can understand that.

One of the things I got from the beginning of Top Dead Center is that you were a race tuner and a shop owner or a dealer. Is that right?

KC: I was a partner in a little outfit called Arlington Motorsports, which was in Arlington, MA. I think I was sort of something extra added on there. The thing might have done ok, as a business, but we were mad for racing and spent too much money on it. Kind of like the Cold War.

MMM: It did look like you spent a lot of money on racing.

KC: In those days a crankshaft for an H1R was $105 to the dealer, in 1971. By 1977, when Kawasaki were fazing out their KR750 liquid-cooled three cylinder, the cost of the crankshaft to Kawasaki was $850. Now, basically, the same number of operations to assemble, or to manufacture.

MMM: So it's all inflation or materials changes?

KC: I think it's just the number being built. Because the KR750 shared no parts with any production model. The AMA originally required 200 machines for homologation. And that's what was required, for example, of Yamaha TD1C's. There had to be shown to be 200 of them. Or the TZ750A, in 1974. For '76 or '75, they changed that to the "twenty-five rule." And then, almost immediately, changed it to "you have to make one in order to have it homologated." The crankshaft for the H1R -- all the flywheels, the connecting rods, and so forth -- were the same forgings as production parts. Then for the KR750, everything was low production, custom item. So, we used to pay, during the '70's, $125 or something like that for a set of crankcases for a TZ250. Then, the TZ250H of 1981, suddenly the crankcases were $1,000 because they weren't shared with a production model.

MMM: What year did you go out of doing race tuning?

KC: Sort of gradually in the 1980's. Because the Daytona 200 was switched to a Superbike race in '84. I built a couple of 4-stroke bikes engines and there was no economic basis for it. The thing about a 2-stroke is that, if you have a piston seizure, you can be running in a half an hour. If you wreck a 4-stroke, the chances are that you need an engine. You are not going to rebuild it. Nobody works on engines at the races anymore.

MMM: I didn't realize that.

KC: They just replace them. When Honda was leaving Laguna, this past weekend, I think they had eight of those molded plastic caissons on casters, each of which said "RC212VE/Z" and gave the engine number. And those were eight engines that were at Laguna for the two factory guys.

MMM: So you don't see a lot of welding sparks going on in the pit area?

KC: No, it used to be that people's frames were cracking and repairs were being made. Rich Chambers, who does some announcing now, always had welding gas in the back of his truck and was very generous with it. People welded things with coat hanger, nice soft iron wire. You could hear the sound of die grinders as recently the early 90's, because there was still a 250 class.

"The die grinders that you hear today are doing things like finishing out little cooling holes in brake disk shrouds or finishing the edges of windscreens that have been cut so that they don't interfere with the rider's helmet. But it used to be, if someone was putting on a new cylinder they'd have to raise the exhaust port. They'd have to do something with the transfers. They'd be little operations.

Kel Carruthers used to do desperate things at the track; they came with the TZ250C in 1976. It had a very low exhaust port. They struggled with that thing all through practice. The Kawasaki's were threatening, the following year they were on the pole. At the last minute, Kel said, "Alright, we're going to do it." They raised the exhaust port 2mm and took 20mm out of the exhaust header pipe and made some corrections in the morning warm-up and they had a race winner.

MMM: All of these precision-sounding changes, these were off of a rule-of-thumb or best-guess, right? They're weren't any flow-testing or . . .

KC: No, you knew what had run for you before. Well, the top of the exhaust should be this many millimeters down and you knew what the shape of the exhaust port had to be in order to not snag the rings. And so, that would take care of the exhaust port dimensions. If you needed to adjust the transfers . . . Kel did it for Kenny in Europe, over the objections of Mr. Doy in 1981 on the 0W54. They machined the base of the cylinder to lower the transfers and, then, they raised the exhausts.

MMM: Looking at some of those early articles you wrote, my guess is that you built close to 80% of a motorcycle yourself, didn't you?

KC: Oh yeah. For instance, we had chassis built by Frank Camillieri who has a machine shop business in New Hampshire now. He used to be north of Boston. An avid racer for years, until Rusty Bradley was so much faster than he was in practice, in 1971, that he said, "That's it. I'm outta here."

But a very good builder. He also made some swingarms for me. So when we built our 750 in 1972, that had a Frank Hamlari frame and swingarm. It had a C&J gas tank made by an outfit in California that was that low-boy tank that was only about 3" high above the frame rail. That bike started out with a Rickman fork, with had 1 5/8" tubes. Terribly modern.

At the start of the year, just for Daytona, we had on a 250mm Fontana 4-shoe drum brake on the front. It was just useless compared with the new disks. So, we quickly converted to disk brakes. I mean, there was no transition there. There no period where drum brakes were better for this, but disk brakes were better for that. It was like "Oh shit, why didn't we think of this before?" The thing with the drum brake is that it has some degree of weather protection, as far as off-road is concerned. As far as a heat absorber, there is just no contest. That became obvious at Daytona in '72.

Of course, '72 was also the "hinge of fate" for tire design. The new 750 triples from Kawasaki and Suzuki just tore up every tire available and the race was won on a 350 Yamaha twin. So, it was the end of the hard rubber era. Dunlop created their new speedway special tire, which was 5 1/2" wide and it required a WM5 rim, I think. Suddenly, everything was different. The end of '73, Goodyear were making something similar, although much more flexible and the following spring the slick tire came out. 1974. At the time, we just thought were having some tire trouble. We didn't see it as, "Wow man, this is like history."

MMM: There seems to be a lot of that going on right now, between Bridgestone and Michelin; especially in the MotoGP territory.

KC: Mr. Giorgio Barbier, the racing manager at Pirelli, says that there are now two separate lines of development for motorcycle tires. There's the MotoGP line which are inflated at 12-15psi, this is rear tires. And then there is everything else. And "everything else" means tires with some commercial utility. Their spec tires for British Superbike and World Superbike are some use to them in developing world production tires.

Whereas, the new super-low pressure racing tires are sort of retracing the footsteps of what happened when Dunlop developed the R5 car racing tire, in the 50's. They had had some tire failures and they decided they would start to use this nylon material for the carcass, instead of cotton; which was the former choice. Nylon was much stronger, so you need fewer plies. That meant a more flexible tire, which meant that you could afford a lower inflation pressure and, therefore, get a bigger footprint. And so they had the peculiar result of a tire that had less top speed but a much quicker lap time.  It had less top speed because the rubber was intentionally made with a lot of internal friction, so-called hysteresis. In order to give it enhanced dry grip and, in particular, much better wet grip.

So, this has been a trend; to make a more flexible tire that lays down a bigger footprint and to permit the tire to survive the heat that would generally be generated in that case by taking a lot of the material out of the tire. Because the more rubber there is there, flexing, the hotter the tire. So, the MotoGP tire, now, the Michelins are very low pressure and, in general, have a soft construction where the Bridgestone’s have equally low pressure but a stiffer carcass construction.

Because both Stoner and Rossi are at high angles of lean for some time. As Rossi commented last year, he said "With the very soft construction that Collin likes, as soon as I touch the throttle the back of the machine jumps sideways." So, I asked Barbier -- you don't ask Michelin people anything, they are sworn to eternal secrecy -- if there was such a thing as compressive buckling in tire carcasses and he said, "Oh yes, it's certainly true." So, I think that's what goes on. Anyway, Rossi and Stoner both like a more substantially constructed carcass that has some resistance to buckling, even by itself, without the inflation.

MMM: How stiff are these tires, compared to what we use on the street?

KC: I think you'd find them softer.

MMM: A lot softer, or just some?

KC: Softer. The fact that there is very little rubber on them and they, being semi-radial construction, they have one main carcass ply and they have the two cut breaker plies under the tread. Which makes that portion stiff, laterally. My analogy for that is that it's like a tank track, which is flexible in one direction and quite rigid in others.

MMM: That brings up a question I have not found an answer for on my own. One of our writers referred to you as some kind of "deity." On the internet, you have everything from a tech school background to a PhD from Harvard.

KC: Yeah well. I'm self-taught in the vocational end and . . . Lenin "seizing the means of production." And as far as the other is concerned, I had an undistinguished college career at a leaf-encrusted East Coast school. That was in physics and it was clear that I wasn't going anywhere because I didn't have the math for it.

"Years later, I learned that the reason for the clarity in Harry Ricardo's classic on the internal combustion engine, The High Speed Internal Combustion Engine, was that he was advised at university to stay on the practical side and avoid the theoretical, because his math wasn't so hot. If you have the math, then you can say, "Well of course, let's see now, velocity is going to appear . . .  one, two, three . . . ok, velocity cubed and we're going to need a coefficient that looks like this and . . .  for small angles of alpha these terms disappear so we end up with this." And there is your understanding, but, for me, it has to be a word picture.

MMM: I suppose physics programs aren't big on word pictures.

KC: It's a strange thing. There are a lot of people, in engineering, who work this way. The Russians, in their theoretical physics groups, seem to recognize that there are the theoreticians and the pure experimentalists and those who work by what they call "deep physical intuition." I think you get that by messing with the stuff. You probably have to be interested in it, I mean you can't assign everyone in an army unit "go out there an get deep physical intuition as described on page 73," but you could get more than you've got. What I see going on now is that kids don't play with stuff. They get to university, as the guys at RPI once told me, "every new entering freshman class has better keyboard skills and more math," but they are less prepared to deal with the physical world. When those people become engineers etc. and go on the job, they have to go and do the playing that they would have done when they were 12 or 8 or 16. They do it on the job and some pretty ridiculous things come out of it. But in the end, the same function is performed, namely, the person gets squared away with physical reality.

MMM: When I was in engineering classes in the 1970s, I took a "career development class." When the instructor asked, "Why do you want to be an engineer." 99% of the class replied "I heard it was a good job." Only a couple of older guys were there because we wanted to build stuff.

KC: In '63, a lot of guys were saying "Oh wow, man. I can start at 18k in Palmdale (Lockheed)"." 18k! Christ, you could buy a house! That was the big draw. Now, of course, anyone would be an idiot to go into such [engineering] courses. You know when you go to work, the boss will say "I can get four opinions from China for the price of one from you. Get lost." And, of course, there is Professor Falco who asked, "Did you ever meet a 40 year old electrical engineer?" I said I'm not sure I ever had. And he said, "You never will, either. Because,” he said, “by the time they get to 40 they've had to move into another field because they are obsolete.”

MMM: At least engineering management. When I was in college, they told us that "the day you leave college is the day you become obsolete."

KC: Sure. The day your education stops is an important day. You mustn't ever let it to happen.

MMM: You talked, in your book, about how you came to write for Cycle and Cycle World. You didn't talk about where you started writing. You were obviously a good writer right from the first things I read from you.

KC: The thing that happens there is, I'm remembering my dad talking about it. My dad was in publishing. He was talking about some guy who was struggling with writing. He said, "No wonder. He's never read anything." I think one thing is exposure to example. If your parents are good talkers, and they talk, that's one thing. If there is a lot of reading going on, that's another thing.

"I think I was always interested in explanations. I've got a couple of papers I wrote when I was having a moment with anthropology grad school and they sound like me. There is just a little bit of humor and a lot of explanation and it's grammatically constructed. That's becoming more unusual every day.

MMM: Good point.

KC: I just finished with a revision of that 1998 book, the Sportbike Performance Handbook. Most of the errors were put there by the copy editor, because they are modern idiom. Instead of saying "not that large a group of people," she wrote "not that big of a . . . " "Big of a" is really taking over.

MMM: If you are going to be modern, you are going to have to start every sentence with "like," too?

KC: And they didn't want my average reader to be Lester Blogs, they wanted it to be Joe Schmoe. I said, "No, I wrote it the way I wanted."

MMM: The group of people I know who have read that book wouldn't be "average" by any means.

KC: Yeah. Another thing, I had a little sister who wanted things explained to her.
I think, mostly, there are families where there isn't a lot of conversation. The parents are busy. The children are at daycare. The talking they do is going to be with the so-called "peer group," which is actually an outreach organization of television advertisers. The results are what you might expect. People speak in what a machinist would call "canned cycles." Canned cycle, in machining, is you would have a set of protocols for producing a radiused edge which would otherwise be a 90 degree corner. You would simply . . . I guess in computing it's called an "object" . . . a set of instructions you don't have to physically write. You just call it in and tell it where you want it to operate. So people memorize all these phrases and there are people you meet, who are perfectly nice, but it's hard to get through their Hallmark persona.  

MMM: You didn't write about very many people like that. There were some outstandingly interesting personalities you described who were considerably different people than I had taken them to be from the brief glance we had from, say, television.

KC: Roberts is a funny character. He's a very intelligent person and that's why he was able to analyze what he did on the racetrack. But he had to have some other quality, which I can't put a name to. He has always been able to think of something that he thinks he should be doing on the racetrack and to put it into his choreography.

It has often been the case that . . .  for example, Kenny tried to get Mike Kidd into road racing. Mike Kidd was so outstanding on the dirt. They had him at Daytona, practicing. Kenny would take him aside and say, "You are rushing these corners. I want you to think about this. Which is more valuable, to keep going at a high speed for another 17 feet at the end of the straightaway or to get a really strong drive off of every corner which will add to your performance all the way to the next corner?"

Kidd would say, "Yeah, I see what you mean."

Kenny would tell him what you have to do is to alter your line like this, get your turning done over here, and use the rest of the turn as a launch pad for really strong acceleration. Kidd would go out and kind of get it. A talented privateer, at Daytona at that time, would turn 2:10. They change the course every year, so these lap times don't make any sense. Kenny worked him down to 2:06. I think 4 seconds, just by talking, is pretty good. Kenny would go to the hotel and Kidd would go back to 2:10.

Irv had the same experience with Alex Barrows. Alex has had a long, really solid career in top level racing, but he's never been a championship threat. The year Irv worked with him, he made the same argument that Kenny made to Kidd. Barrows accepted it and he went out in practice and he could do it. It seems that it is just like an immigrant who learns English and speaks it quite well, when he becomes agitated he begins to sound a lot more foreign.

MMM: Sure, he reverts to his habits.

KC: Sure we are onions, not watermelons. We just revert to an inner defense layer when the conditions seem to warrant it. I think that's what happens with a lot of people. And I further would argue the reason some people have left the sport -- like Luca Cadalora, John Kocinski, Max Biaggi, and many top people -- is that they did not have that flexibility that Kenny and Rossi and a few others seem to have. As the nature of motorcycle design and, particularly, tires evolve under them they are unable to exploit the advantages of what is new and continue to try to set their motorcycles up so they feel as they have always felt. Ultimately, that becomes impossible and they have to give up. If they can't get the cues that tell them what is going to happen next, they have no confidence. It's like you are driving quite nicely at night and, suddenly, your headlights go out. You have no cues, you stop. When these guys say that "such and such is really not advancing in practice very rapidly," they will go to talk to those people and he'll say "well, that front end feels . . . " They just can't get it to feel like he wants it to. The rider has no way of anticipating how much is too much. Kenny and certain others, it seems, were able to make arbitrary adjustments to their style and still go fast. It's remarkable.

MMM: When I picked up TDC, I stumbled on to your chapter on Kenny Roberts and what you just described. I was sucked into the book because you did a terrific job of describing his personality and he was so different from what I expected.

KC: This was something that surprised Cook Neilson, when he met Kenny. He met Kenny in '73, before he was national champion. At Dayton, one year, he had a long talk with him in the Goodyear tower. He came out of there and he seemed almost dizzy. He said, "I went in there and I guess I was thinking I was going to talk to this quick wrist kid who just goes out there and kind of skids it around." I think of that as the Ken Purdy view of racing. Big balls, hot blood, when this guy gets all emotional he's unbeatable. He has to have his orange juice at the right time of the morning or everything is off. Neilson said, "Instead, I have to call him an 'intellectual of racing."

I had my innings in 1980, when I was sent to his house to do an interview. I thought of the old question the sportswriter, with no imagination, puts to the champion. He says, "Hey champ, how does it feel to hit the longest home run in Ebbets Field history." The champ says, looking at the guy somewhat searchingly, "It feels great."

So, I thought I was going to have to do something to get his interest. How can there be a conversation if both parties don't get something from it. Otherwise, it's called an interrogation. So, I decided to leave the notebook and the recorder in the car. I went in, and after the formalities, I said, "How far into your career did you get before you discovered that you were more intelligent than the people you were working with?" He sat and looked at me for a minute and I thought "oh shit." And then he started with that business about what happened at Brands Hatch, going up into the truck and making himself an office out of tires. And it was just fabulous material. I was very appreciative, you can bet, because it made that story. Yamaha liked it very much. It was really quite the gift.

MMM: It was a great story, no question about it.

KC: He hadn't told it before because nobody had asked him. He said that was the first moment, when he went out into practice and in three laps he was right on the lap record. He said, "That was the first time in my life when I realized that it was my mind that made everything go fast, or not. And it didn't have anything to do with my hands, or my ass, or my feet." Kenny, now, alternates between being this intelligent, analytical person who understands this activity that he can't seem to leave. On the other hand, taunting those around him by slipping into redneck obscurantism and saying provocative things that sound like talk radio.

He can be a real pain in the ass. Phil Shilling hated him, called him "that little shit."

MMM: Seemed like there was a little conflict between KR and KR Jr., wasn't there?

KR: Kenny Jr. had the Einstein problem; "Albert Einstein is my dad and much is expected of me, but I take it all with a pound of salt." Kenny Jr. is kind of the flat affect man. Now that he's no longer racing, his attitude is "I have a great time everyday. I get up when I want. I eat what I want, If I want to go lie around on the boat, that's what I do." He said, "I burned my passport. Never getting on a commercial airliner again, as long as I live."

MMM: I can understand that.

KC: Yeah. Curtis is, on the other hand, is like a scary, close replica of his dad. He walks with his arms sort of sprung out from his sides, like a person who has just come from the gym and hasn't done his stretching. His voice has that sibilance that his dad's voice has. All of his enunciation is very much like his dad's. Nobody can tell him anything. He looked like he was set for a big career in racing, and up, up, up he went but ooops . . .  well, his tire didn't last. His tire didn't last this time either. They sent him to Freddy. They lectured him. He was moved from one team to another. He sorta . . . I think his dad told him to go to college. "Get a job, you know? Make some money in this life."

MMM: The designers you've written about. Nobody else in the business writes much about those guys. Are those people tough to sell to your editors?

KC: No, they were assignments. At Cycle World, David Edwards doesn't want any advice from anybody. I want to do a story about Albert Gunter but it hasn't happened yet. It was years before I could do a story about Rex McCandles. Fortunately, the research that I've done for those stories, both written and unwritten, has had value in other areas. Those people have a lot to tell us.

It's an interesting thing, how different a motorcycle magazine is from a sports car magazine. Sports cars have social standing. There is a class of dentists with 911's who devour the latest tire shootout and they go back to the tire store and they have their Toyo tires taken off and they have Chen Shins put on, or whatever won the last shootout. Now they are cool. There is nothing comparable on the motorcycle side.

"Moreover, the readership keeps getting older. It may be, as some propose, that motorcycling in the US was a one-time, non-recurring phenomenon. There was a huge bulge in the '60s and '70s and those people are now on their second or third marriages and, arguably, have their lives under control. They can go out and buy any motorcycle they want. And a lot of them have. Those are the "born again" riders. The big demographic change that took place in the '80s and '90s, namely the evisceration of the lower middle class and the end of good industrial jobs in the US, meant that motorcycles moved upscale. So, an outfit like Ducati today is well advised to do what those Chris-Craft guys have done. Namely, to market products aimed at people who are not hurt by off-shoring or job loss.

MMM: I hadn't thought of that, but it's obviously true.

KC: And that's why you can see all of these outfits like Moto-Ecosse. They sell an all titanium motorcycle, which is an ugly thing, but every single part on it is machined out of billet or meticulously welded. You might call them "abstract choppers." Two hundred and fifty thousand dollars. And they have buyers; hedge fund managers, software designers . . .  I was talking to this guy in the energy drink palace at Laguna. He seems like this happy, goofy guy, but they cut a lot of titanium in the shop and they do all this really existential-looking welding. Focus on any part of these motorcycles, which I think are ugly, but the parts are nice. There are people who want that. It's not the same as somebody who buys a 4-wheel drive 911 with the liquid-cooled heads; or whatever it is that's really out there at the moment. A Ferrari F430, in comparison with something like that is a commodity.

MMM: I suppose that's so. The article you wrote about Continental Tire, in the 80's, made it sound like there was a huge middle-class motorcycle crowd that doesn't exist here. Is that different now?

KC: I saw those people when we were a little late getting to the paddock at Hokenheim, in '81. We're in this jam and surrounded on all sides by tricked-out BMW's and, for some reason, Germans really loved Laverdas at that time. Two people on every bike. His and hers, matching leathers, some all-black and many multi-colored. With all the most expensive stuff that Her Krauser used to make. I thought this is quite a crowd to be stuck in. Now, it was always clear to me that when leaving the track at Louden to get five gallons of gas that, a mile down the road, nobody'd every heard of Kenny Roberts. When Schlacter finished sixth in the 250GP at Hokenheim in '81 and Krauser told us to come see him the next day, we started off down the road. We stopped to get something eat and we went into the restaurant and there were motorcyclists there. "Ah Schlacter." They pushed forward their best English speaker who then interrogated him as to why he took this line, in this chicane, and why did he do something different from this rider, and what was the point of this? It was all very much like football morning after. It was an entirely novel experience for me.

The notion of well-informed motorcyclists, as opposed to the guy who . . . Jim Allen brought a friend to Mosport once. The friend said, "Where should I watch?"

Jim said, "Well there is Moss's Corner is a demanding place, there's this and that, there's the transition into turn two . . ."

"No, no," the guy said. "You don't get it. Where can I see the best accidents?"

At the time, in the 80's when I might still be asked to be on the AMA pro-comp board, I was the guy who would say, "Let's admit that spectators come to see somebody injured. Instead of pussy-footing around the issue, let's talk about snipers in the stands and oil jets in the corners."  Of course, this is what's behind all the anti-electronics thing. They want to see them high-side.

MMM: Is the anti-electronics group primarily US?

KC: No, Rossi is opposed to the electronics. I asked Burgess about that and he said, "Oh, he is a member of the outgoing generation and, of course, he would like to return to the status quo. He would win." A year ago, Capirossi said he wishes the 500's would come back. "Those were strong engines," he said. "If we put this field on 500's, half of them would fall off in one lap."

Some of the people are simply making the argument that this is entertainment and if the spectators aren't entertained they won't come. There are the Hemmingway "true fight" types who want this manly contest. Rossi spoke of the rider "in love with the throttle." It's a terrible intimacy. He said, "You open up a bit from the edge and you wait. You put some more footprint down and you can open up a little more. Maybe 70 meters after the corner you have the throttle open. Now, you pick your point in the corner and simply pin it and the system takes over." That's evidently not true on the Honda's at this point. I think the Honda are behind on the software developments.

MMM: It's hard to imagine that the electronics are that quick and that good.

KC: I was told that by one of the teams that they have a device by which they can take a sound recording at the edge of the track, say at the apex of a corner. They can then process the sound in such a way that they can tell when somebody's anti-spin system begins to cycle. They say when Stoner's way down to 5mm off of the edge of his tire that his anti-spin system is already at work. Which means he already has the throttle open. As Rossi comments, you get on to full throttle sooner and arrive at the next corner going faster. The tires let you go through that corner faster and, consequently, when you do have a loss of grip the resulting crash is worse than ever.

I could imagine that somewhere the FIM or DORNA or somebody are preparing grooved tires. You've probably ridden knobbies on the road, you know that feeling? Because they have grooved tires in so-called Formula One and they may decide that everyone has to have a V-4 engine with this bore and stroke. I think before then Honda will go home and it will all be over and something else will have to go in its place.

MMM: It does seem like when the regulatory agencies become obnoxious enough that the manufacturers don't like to play anymore the manufacturers just find different places to play.

KC: Oh yeah, the budget goes someplace. It just moves.

MMM: I remember when motocross was all outdoors, most of the audience was made up of riders and their families. Once it moved indoors in the 80's, the spectators are largely non-riders and the tracks looked to me to be designed to create spectacular crashes. Is there an equivalent in road racing?

KC: Well, I think now that they have the runoff areas where the gravel is so deep even if your motorcycle is upright it won't be for long. The tendency is to create a kind of bull ring in a stadium like Valencia where you can see at least the positions, if not the action, most of the way around the track. Part of this is that you're not going to be able to get the real estate like Spa as a closed circuit because the land is too valuable.

It's kind of like what's happened in stadium jumping for horses. They just keep making the courses more technical and requiring more outrageous sequences of maneuver and it's not the Targa Floria anymore.

MMM: Does that result in more horse or rider injury?

KC: I think probably horses don't last that long at high level competition. Their poor joints, all that whamming and twisting.

Motorcycles are . . . a guy crashes and 20 minutes later you see him on the course again and everything is perfect? They just replace everything that is not as it was. I remember when I first began to see crews wearing these suits of lights and I realized they looked most like the outfits that bicycle racers wore. The pit buildings, the first items that were unloaded were the theatrical flat.

MMM: A couple of questions directly related to Top Dead Center. Out of the five hundred some articles you've written how did you select the fifty-some articles in the book?

KC: My editor, Lee Klancher. Lee has a good editorial eye. It was his idea to group the riders and engineer people and all of that arrangement was his work. I really think it was good because if I had to refer to one of my articles and read through until I found what I needed. And it just seemed like, "Yeah I wrote that back then." It seemed, somehow, more coherent. I quite liked it. It seemed to have acquired something as a whole that it wouldn't have, by any means, in parts; aside from accessibility, and there's a lot to be said for that.

MMM: It's a readable book as a collection of short stories or as a book, from front to back.

KC: Lee is a kind of editorial consultant, now. He used to work for MBI. He's the architect.

 MMM: Of the people you wrote about, were there any people you felt almost unprepared to talk to before you interviewed them?

KC: Well certainly, KR. You know you're getting the opportunity to talk to someone who has particularly distinguished himself in this particular way. You want to deserve the confidence that has been placed in you for that. I think what that does is creates a little tingle of fear, which is not a bad thing. If you don't have that little tingle you might begin to wonder if you are going to look at your watch during the interview. And you don't want to do that.

MMM: I'm almost certain that in "Reasons to Romp" I found evidence that you might be a Monty Python fan?

KC: That piece came as a result of a conversation with Big Sid Biberman, the VIncent guy. He talked about Vincents as being these long-legged equestrian wheeled vehicles that allow you to roll through the scenery and not be too athletic about it. I think I decided that was a worthwhile idea because we can't all go to turn 8 at Willow and live there. Years ago, I used to write a lot more stuff about some aspect of shop work or some aspect of that shared life. Sleeping in vans. The night we drove to Detroit, by mistake. That sort of thing. I've got away from that as I've got away from the shop.

MMM: Do you think that's because you've become much more intelligent or just lower energy?

KC: [laughs] I think you get to a point where you can see that your efforts don't tend toward greatly improved results. I could see that, in comparison with Irv Kanemoto, my bikes were going to be also-rans. His understanding is on a much higher level than mine. That's sort of liberating in a way, it gives you something not to strive for. Having a family means that you can't be off to the races. Jerry Burgess has a family in Australia and they simply live that way. He's away in Europe for several months of the year and they've structured their lives to accommodate that. I couldn't and I don't think I would have wanted to.

Irv Kanemoto and I have had conversations in which it's clear that each of us has a certain wistfulness about the direction the other one chose. That's the irreversibility of life.

MMM: You have to pick a path and that means you didn't pick a bunch of other paths.

KC: Steve Whitelock and I, when we were both working on Kawasaki triples liked to imagine vast R&D shops with saluting technicians and rows of milling machines that grew indistinct in the distance. We both love to construct palaces of words and Whitelock went on to become a Honda troublemaker, that's different from a troubleshooter. He was with their motocross team in Frankfurt for years and, then, he was something in international road racing for a long time. Most recently, he was AMA Supercross manager. Before that, he was the tech inspector at World Superbike. He's had an extremely varied career and he's a wonderful talker and just filled with stories. Many of which can't be told to the larger audience.

MMM: I suspect you have a few of those too.

KC: Those guys have been a lot closer to the machinations of the big teams. I get to hear sort of reverberations and whisperings, but they participated.

One of the things that will happen is that someone in a responsible position will tell you things that you can't possibly used. I had that relationship with Gary Mathers and, at the end of one conversation, I said, "Gary, I'm stupefied. There  is nothing here I can use." And Gary said, "You'll protect me, I'm sure." Off he went.

Basically, he said if it had been up to him Miguel would have been out in the 90s. Because it became clear that he lacked the concentration to win a championship. He was always going to do something like endo into the bales at the Daytona chicane or keep trying to qualify even though his screen was covered with rain at Louden. And those are the kinds of events that made him furious. At the same time, he was 100% company man and very protective of all the secrets that needed to be kept secret. I think, sometimes, people want you to have the background, even though they know it can't see the light of day.

MMM: Thanks to Martin Belair, I got a chance to interview Martin Lampkin a few years back. When I asked him why there hasn't been a US world trials champ since Bernie Schrieber, he said, "You don't ride enough."

KC: That's always been a problem in the US. The Ontario Speedway near LA, people thought it was going to be a huge success. It just dribbled to a stop. The reason is that nothing outdraws the big town. Too many choices. The notion of driving all the way out to Ontario and baking there . . . forget it. Motor sports on Long Island never got anywhere for the same reason.

MMM: Riverside had some problems for that reason, too.

KC: Yeah, you have to create a kind of cult event, like Laguna is now. People go out there and campout or they stay in the $300 a night hotel and eat and drink expensively. It's of its kind, the same thing that Louden was in the early 70's. It's a gypsy encampment, a defect isolate. Everyone there is on your wavelength. People will pay a lot for such a weekend.

MMM: How do you think Indianapolis will do then?

KC: I don't know. They, supposedly, had less success arm-wrestling paddock passes out of DORNA than at Laguna. I think there is 1200 or 1500 passes. American spectators are accustomed to that kind of access. In Europe, the whole Formula One thing is sort like a black box or a black hole. The Hawking radiation is emitted at the start of the race. The little hole opens, the cars come out, they take their places on the grid, they race, they go back into the hole and close the door. That's all you get. You don't get "I was as close as from me to you and they rolled this thing right past me. Fantastic!" In any NHRA race, you're in amongst them. When a team has to get back to its work area, they have a police car with its siren going that makes a hole through the crowd so they can roll the car back in time to make the next round.

MMM: Have you been to a NASCAR event? Is it the same kind of spectator access?

KC: I haven't. You can see what they've done at Daytona. They've turned it into a theme park. It's uninteresting, if you went in times past. It's well enough suited to the modern spectator. If you go up to one of those windows, look in, tap on the window, and you slide your expensively purchased poster through the poster slot, they scrawl on it, and slide it back out to you, if they choose to.  And you can walk along and you can see who has the biggest toolbox on little go-cart wheels.

Every year it used to be more and more annoying at Daytona, with the geriatric cops who would come around at seven and say "You all have to leave." Then it would be six, then five. Because in NASCAR, the cars only have three moving parts and they can change all of them in 12 minutes, so they can get out of the garage quickly. They couldn't see why the bikes wouldn't be the same. Now they have this theme park thing with all the brick and the places to buy beer and posters. I can't say that I'll ever regard it as progress.

MMM: One last question, I saw one piece of evidence in Top Dead Center that you ride motorcycles. Do you still ride motorcycles?

KC: No.

MMM: No?

KC: Occasionally, somebody comes to visit with a new bike and I'll find my helmet and have a go. In the 80s, I think I had a Honda Saber, 750, for several months. It was from the magazine, Cycle, and I rode it to Boston a few times because I was building exhaust pipes for somebody in that way. Normally, if I drove in my van, I'd be behind sixteen cars and there would be a motor home at the front or a local farmer, on two-lane highway. On a motorcycle, you can pass them all in an instant and see the needle come back past 100 as you pull into your own lane. I thought "that's thrilling, but I'm not a god. I could kill myself, this way." It was wonderful to just burst past those motor homes or the local farmer who has been driving at this speed since 1927.

"I think somebody like Paul Dean, who has ridden every day of his life is very much safer than someone who rides now and then. Like flying.

"I never had any interest in adding my penetrating insight from the saddle, because I did a little racing but I never got to be any use at it. And I don't think there is any point in confusing myself with such information. I can get information from people who know. Of course, a little motorcycle is looking pretty attractive with $4 gas.

MMM: You'd kind of hope someone might bring a little motorcycle over here, occasionally.

KC: Well, it hasn't happened. I had lots of motorcycles, years ago; some considerable variety. The more I got involved in the construction, the less interesting it seemed to actually ride them.

MMM: There are certainly lots of racers who don't ride anywhere outside of a race track.

KC: Freddy didn't have a driver's license for a long time, until Kawasaki gave him a Z1, I think, after the '78 season. He had to get a driver's license so he could drive. Then, he was appalled. He said, "People really ride these things?"

MMM: He'd have loved a cruiser, wouldn't he?

KC: Oh my god. But, we're used to what we're used to.

[POSTSCRIPT: This interview and the following dozens of emails I've exchanged over the last five years with Kevin are pretty much the highlight of my moto-journalism career. As I've said more than once before, Kevin's Cycle World column and articles are the reason I read that magazine. Getting to spend an extended time talking with this brilliant man and having the incredible opportunity to run ideas by him before I expose my ignorance and foolishness to the world has been somewhere beyond my wildest expectations. Thanks for being who you are, Kevin.]