Jul 13, 2013

BOOK REVIEW: Top Dead Center


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).

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