Monday, October 31, 2011

A note from the Dept. of Devil's Advocacy

A couple of months ago, MCN (the UK motorcycle tabloid, not Motorcycle Consumer News in the U.S.) contacted me and asked me if I wanted to participate in a sort of printed 'debate' about the state of motorcycle racing in general and MotoGP in particular. They wanted to pair me with another 'expert' (a term I'm using loosely, obviously) to argue for/against Traction Control. 

Since I had a choice of what side of the argument I'd take, and since everyone seems to be against TC, I naturally chose to defend it.

Here's what I wrote...

Traction Control's not the real villain

Let’s set aside the fact that Traction Control is beneficial on road-going motorcycles. They say “racing improves the breed” and whether the latest TC systems - look at the Aprilia RSV4 or BMW S1000RR - grew out of those companies’ racing programs or not, they have allowed ordinary riders to explore their machines’ performance envelopes in much greater safety. ABS, similarly, is a huge boon to riders who are mere mortals.
So the question is not simply, “Should we ban TC?” The question is also, “Do we really want top-level racing series to rely on technology that will look increasingly primitive as road bikes continue to evolve?” 
My answer to the first question is, “You can try but it didn’t work here in the U.S.” And my answer to the second is a simple, “No” on philosophical grounds. On principle, I believe that top-tier race bikes should be more advanced than ordinary road bikes.
Even if you don’t share my philosophical position, there are other reasons to think twice about a simple ban of TC. It’s easy to look back over the last decade or so, and point to TC as  ‘the new thing’ that cocked MotoGP up. But other factors have also conspired to produce processional races on one-line tracks. 
The overall engineering packages of motorcycles are increasingly homogenous. So are the development paths taken by young riders; the Red Bull Rookies Cup is a blatant attempt to produce cookie-cutter future stars. Smaller grids limit diversity and restrictive licensing and qualifying rules have made lapped traffic a thing of the past. Even the tracks we race on are getting smoother and smoother. And most importantly, almost all major championships now use control tires.
So the racing’s still thrilling in the 125 class and it’s wild-and-wooly in Moto2, but as the grids shrink in MotoGP and the risks (both physical and financial) of over-riding the machine increase, riders literally toe the same line. Why isn’t this a debate about riders and the culture of motorcycle racing? Sheene vs. Roberts; Rainey vs. Schwantz... If you could put those guys in a time machine and have them race contemporary MotoGP bikes, the races would not be parades.
And banning TC is not that simple. There was about a decade when the Yoshimura Suzuki team here (in the AMA Superbike Championship) had a clandestine TC system developed by computer guru Amar Bazzaz. Yosh had great riders in Mat Mladin and Ben Spies, but part of the team’s long dominance was simple cheating. 
Here’s another lesson from America: Our Grand National flat track racing scene is still full of lurid slides and wheelies. Bar-banging last corner passes determine almost every race. Yet the series struggles to attract young fans - perhaps because the bikes being raced are far more primitive than any modern street bike.
In the final analysis, while banning Traction Control seems like a quick fix, it’s a certainty that within a few years, un-traction-controlled racers will lap at slower speeds than production bikes with advancing state-of-the-art TC - and that will suck. Petrolheads all want to see the fastest and the best bikes doing battle. The answer is not more restrictive rules, it’s a less-restrictive attitude, and it has to pervade the sport from top to bottom.

Author note: I wrote this before Simoncelli's fatal crash. Looking back on it now, and reading me sort of rhetorically asking, "What would Kevin Schwantz be doing, if he was here now?" makes me reflect on the fact that Simoncelli was the young rider most like Schwantz in every way, physically and emotionally, but also in his balls-out riding and acceptance of frequent crashes in the search of the absolute limit. 

Simoncelli's Sepang crash began with a hairy knee save after over-riding and/or over-braking into that corner. If he hadn't been hit by Rossi and Edwards -- if he had pulled off the knee save, he'd've seemed even more Schwantz-like.

Trying that hard comes with a price.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Why Marco Simoncelli didn't think it could happen to him

Last Monday, I wrote about risk in the context of sports like motorcycle racing. Today, I'll close that loop, with an excerpt from Riding Man that addresses the techniques that motorcycle racers use to deal with the psychological stress those risks entail. 

It's a statement of the obvious: racers are acutely superstitious. We've all seen Valentino Rossi's going-on-track ritual, that begins with his deep squat and tugging his bike's foot peg and ends with him pulling the leathers out of the crack of his ass as he rolls down pit lane.

Of course, those rituals are part of a mind-clearing exercise and in some ways actually do help to protect riders, but they don't confer any real luck; he did all that stuff, I'm certain, before he rolled out onto the track in Sepang. Then fate cruelly threw Simoncelli directly into his path.

Did Rossi think, "That could have been me," or was it, "I wish it had been me"? Is he now mulling over last Sunday morning in Sepang, looking for the thing he did do to bring him such bad luck? Or wondering what good luck charm failed him?

The truth is, you can't really race motorcycles without an inner belief that "it can't happen to me." While I was on the Isle of Man researching Riding Man and preparing for the TT, I saw plenty of superstition on the part of racers, and came to term with my own 'magic thinking', as I processed the risks associated with the upcoming race. I addressed those topics in a chapter I called...

Hello, Fairies

The Manx Motorcycle Club annual dinner is pretty much the social event of the winter on the Island. The mayor of Douglas, the Island’s governor, and the leaders of Manx industry such as they are, they’re all guests; Jack Wood had to pull strings to get me a ticket.

I show up a couple of hours early, to attend the club’s annual meeting. Picture a large room full of men in blazers. Several men with snow-white hair announce their retirements. In order to fill their positions, gray haired men are nominated. Nominations are seconded. All in favor say ‘Aye’. The Deputy Clerk of the Course’s term was not up, but he’s unfortunately deceased. He too is replaced. Finally, a new President literally assumes the mantle, as a large medal is hung around his neck on an elaborate sort of necklace. Jack Wood is made an honorary life member. I am the youngest person in the room, or so it seems.

The business of the club attended to – the races presumably preserved for another year –we go back downstairs for drinks. I sit down on a padded bench, beside a guy who is carrying so much weight that he braces an arm on an expansive thigh to prevent his body simply flowing in the direction of gravity. He wants to talk, though it leaves him breathless. When he asks me what I’m doing here, and I tell him, he gets a little defensive. A writer? Am I here to skewer the TT? But I’ve become adept at allaying such fears; I’m here to ride in it, after all, how could I be against it?

Every now and then, someone comes by to say ‘hi’ to him, and offers to buy him a drink. Once, he makes a motion to get up, and a man twice his age puts a hand on his shoulder saying, “No, I’ll get them.” It turns out that he’s the director of the Island’s Emergency Planning department. He enumerates the good things that the TT has given the Isle of Man; a much bigger hospital and better ambulance service, and top flight orthopedic surgeons that a little place like this would otherwise never have.

We go in for dinner. I’m seated at the press table next to Norrie Whyte, a legendary British journalist who tells me he’s been to every MMC dinner “since Read won in ’60.” Then he complains that no one can write any more. There’s a toast to “The Queen, Lord of Man” and after a few brief speeches Tony Jefferies (current champ David’s uncle, and head of the racing clan) is wheeled up onto the stage for a keynote speech that he could give in his sleep, or at least completely drunk, which he is. “He makes me look like a teatotaller,” says Whyte with admiration. Somewhere in there, a meal is served and there’s a swirl of conversation from which I note only a fragment, “That’s the trouble, isn’t it? These young guys are trying to ‘short circuit’ the TT course.”

Standing at the bar, afterwards, I meet two riders, an old guy and his protégé. The old guy is Chris McGahan, an Englishman who nearly made a career of racing, back in the ‘70s. Since then, he’s specialized as a ‘real road’ racer, doing the major Irish meetings, the TT and Manx GP, and a few public road races on the continent.

Chris, who’s probably in his fifties, looks like an ex-lightweight boxer who stayed in shape. Long arms, strong hands and shoulders; his most noticeable feature is a pair of large ears, the tops of which stick out horizontally like wings. “They call me ‘wingnut’,” he grins. In a room where men outnumber women at least 20:1, he seems to have two dates. (The MMC Annual Dinner was actually stag until the mid-‘90s.) The younger guy is Sean Leonard, Irish. “Dere’s noothin’ known about racin’ dat Chris don’t know,” Sean tells me.

They’ve hardly stopped drinking when they call me around 10 a.m. the next morning. They’re going to drive down to Castletown to meet a sponsor, then cut a couple of laps of the Mountain in a borrowed car. Do I want to come?

Chris spins one yarn after another. Famous old racers, fast women; smuggling booze back across the channel from continental races, smuggling stowaways on the ferry to the island for the TT; serious substance abuse continuing right up to the green flag; choose any four from columns A, B, and C. He’s driving as fast as he’s talking. Suddenly, with Chris hurtling along in mid-sentence, Sean blurts, “Fairy Bridge!”

No Island native crosses the little stone bridge without saying ‘hello’ to the fairies. Sean says it, and so does Chris, injecting his “Hello Fairies,” in the middle of a sentence. I say it, too. They kind of laugh it off, like, ‘we don’t actually believe it…’

We park at a pub, and go in. It’s maybe 10:30 a.m., I’m thinking what, tea? Brunch? They stand at the bar and order pints of beer. “What about you, Mark? What’ll you take for a livener?” I order a pint of Guinness, and a second, before the sponsor shows up with his wife. He’s a dapper guy, younger than McGahan (and me, for that matter) but dressed older; he wears a pocket watch on a gold chain. There’s a bit of business done, as Chris discusses plans for a vintage bike, something they’re planning to build for one of the Manx GP classes.

I beg off the third pint, while we socialize. The sponsor, I learn, owns a scrapyard somewhere “on the mainland” but his involvement with Chris isn’t really a business proposition; in ‘real roads’ racing, sponsors provide bikes or money so they can hang out with riders, maybe that’s why the riders tend to be such characters.

We head back north in the car, and pick up the course at Ballacraine corner, about six miles into it. Chris is again in running commentary mode, driving even faster now. As we go over the various “jumps” and bumpy areas on the course, Chris takes his hands off the wheel and makes handlebar waggling movements. Sean reaches up and grips, tightly, the handle above the passenger-side door.

Just past Ballaugh, we come to a white cottage and Chris slams on the brakes. “Gwen’s always got tea and cakes for racers,” he says, then as he gets out “Wait here while I see if she’s in.”

Gwen’s become a minor celebrity, known as the ‘lady in white’. She stands in her garden, for every TT practice session and every race, rain or shine. She always waves as the racers pass, and many of them claim to acknowledge her, though she lives on a bumpy stretch of road so they don’t wave back as much as raise a finger or waggle a foot. For decades, she always wore a white dress, until she was made an honorary corner marshal and issued a white coverall. She’s an honorary member of the TT Rider’s Association, too. There was even a time when the ‘newcomer’s bus tour’ used to actually stop at her cottage, and everyone would troop out and meet her (later, on my bus tour, we didn’t stop. I assume she’s getting too old.)

When I ride past her cottage on my bicycle, I look in the big front picture window. The parlor walls are covered with photos and TT mementos, but I’ve never seen any movement in there. In fact, I’ve been wondering if Gwen is still alive. I’d like to meet her, but it’s not destined to happen. Chris jumps back into the car. “The door was open, but she’s not in there,” he says, and we’re off again.

Back in Douglas, we spend four hours in another bar, “The owner’s one of our sponsors,” Chris says, and we begin drinking as though someone else will pick up the tab. When I finally beg off, they can’t believe I’m not coming with them to the next party.
There was no way Sean Leonard was going to cross the Fairy Bridge without saying ‘hello’ to the fairies. Michelle Duff’s (she was previously Mike, but that’s another story) final words of advice to me before I left were, “Say ‘hello’ to the fairies from me.”Nowadays visitors tend to think, "How quaint, the simple folk still believe in magic." But motorcycle racers are superstitious, too.

One of the places that’s been bugging me – frankly, scaring me – on the course is Barregarrow crossroads. Two gnarly blind left-hand kinks, connected by a steep bumpy downhill. But one day as I’m riding along on my bicycle, I come to the farm just before the crossroads. There’s a huge tree on the left here, and I’m making a mental note that I need to be way over to the right, in position for the first kink, by the time I get to this point. As I’m pedaling beneath the tree, I hear a cacophony overhead. Hundreds of crows are living up in the branches. In fact, the road is plastered with their shit, which is another reason to be over to the right. But crows. Suddenly, I’ve lost my fear of Barregarrow.

All this goes back quite a few years. Once, I signed up for a California Superbike School session on a Honda RS125 GP bike. The school took place out at Willow Springs, on the ‘Streets of Willow’ practice course. As usual, I didn’t know anyone there. My lupus was acting up; every joint really hurt, and the prospect of folding myself onto one of those tiny, tiny bikes was not that appealing. As a Canadian in the ‘States, I had no health insurance. All in all, as I waited to get started, I figured I’d put myself in a very good position to make a fool of myself at best, break my body and my bank account at worst.

I was distracted from these glum thoughts by a flock of ravens about a hundred yards down the pit wall. They were fighting over treasure: a bag of old french fries. Suddenly, for no reason, I had a sense that these birds were good luck for me and that as long as they were there, I was going to be alright. This belief sprang fully-formed into my head. Like other people, the things I believe most fervently are based in utter nonsense.

Ever since then big, noisy black birds are good luck for me. I’ve always felt that – especially on the morning of races – if I see one it’s a guarantee I won’t be hurt. And it’s always been true.

(Author’s note: Long after that day at Willows, in the course of my advertising career, I had to write some public service TV spots on the subject of gambling addiction. I went to a few ‘Gambler’s Anonymous’-type meetings where I learned to two things. One was that gambling addicts were pathetic losers. The other was that this irrational belief that something is lucky for you has a name. Psychologists call it ‘magic thinking’ and it is one of the hallmarks of risk addiction.

In fairness, the big black birds have always worked for me. They’ve protected me on days I’ve seen ‘em, and indeed, I’ve had some hairy crashes on mornings when I’ve not seen them. If you set out to debunk my talisman, you’d say, “The birds calm you, and you ride better relaxed; you’re tense when you’re aware you haven’t seen one, and you ride shitty tense.” That may be true. The scientist in me is a little subtler. I think that the birds are common, after all, and there’s probably almost always one to see. I think that when I’m in a state of relaxed awareness, alert to my environment, I can count on seeing one. That’s the state in which I ride well. When I internalize, when I’m looking in and not out, I don’t see them. That’s a state in which I ride poorly.

Whatever the case, after the TT fortnight was over, I drove one of my visitors to the airport, and on the way home crossed the Fairy Bridge. Somehow, lost in thought, I failed to say ‘hello’ though I reassured myself that I’d said it on the trip to the airport and according to the letter of the legend, it is the first crossing of each day which is critical. Nonetheless, most Manx say hello on every crossing, and that had been my habit too.

As I was worrying through this very thought, I noticed a crow hopping in the road ahead of me. I got closer and closer I actually said, “Hey, take off” out loud. But it didn’t. I thought about slamming on the brakes, or swerving, and did a quick visual check to ensure the road was otherwise clear. Then I thought, “Don’t be stupid, they always wait to the last second to get out of the way.”

But it didn’t. I hit it and killed it.

I was fucking aghast.)

Monday, October 24, 2011

A writer's notebook, Simoncelli, and a meditation on risk

The last week or so, there's been several moments when I've found myself thinking, 'That would make a great topic for a blog post,' but I just haven't had the time to jot down more than a reminder to myself.

The hip Hell for Leather site's been paying a little attention to the Occupy Wall Street movement; first covering the NYC cops' apparent use of their scooters as juggernauts, bowling over protesters. Then, they ran this story about Greek rioters using motorcycle gear for protection from police batons, etc. Are they taking a side? It's not yet clear.

Another disgruntled ex-motorcycle journalist, Mark Williams -- the long-time editor of the great UK magazine BIKE -- has taken to blogging about wider topics, and his blog's definitely worth reading.

I've been meaning to weigh in on the (hopefully final, for a while) sale of Cycle World magazine. Then I decided that, instead, I'd conduct a lengthy interview with America's greatest bike mag editor, Cook Neilson.

Cook, who studied Lit at Princeton, was the editor of Cycle from the late '60s through the late '70s. Picture this: When Cycle moved from New York to L.A., they moved into a space that was 25% office and 75% shop. Cook and Phil Schilling developed and built a motorcycle, in their own shop, that Cook used to win the 1977 Superbike race at Daytona.

That interview's epic, and I'll probably finish writing it up and post it in a month or two on the Motorcycle-USA web site. I wish Cycle World well I guess, but it's no Cycle.

I was going to write about two 'Love Ride' motorcyclists being killed in L.A., and point out for the nth time that rides for breast cancer, autism, toys for tots or whatever the hell else you want to benefit are misguided. The only thing we, as motorcyclists, should ride to benefit is spinal cord research. Breast cancer, autism, and toyless tots are all worthy causes, but we should be collecting money for the thing that most affects us, as riders. The only reason we don't is that we're all too scared to even raise the subject.

Oh, and my friend John Stein's amazing history of motorcycle drag racing is about to come out, and that's newsworthy too. All that was stuff I was hoping to write up when I finally got a couple of days off early this week.

Then Marco Simoncelli was killed in Malaysia. That changed everything.

I haven't seen the crash. Since I don't have a television, I wasn't watching it and I won't see it on the internet because my personal policy is not to purposely watch a crash that ends a career. It's just a thing with me; a place I draw the line.

Simoncelli's death, though, underlines the inherent risk in motorsport. The best gear, the safest tracks, the best corner workers and the Clinica Mobile will never take all those risks out of racing. In fact, if racing ever was made completely safe, it would also become boring to me.

Risk, as a philosopher might say, informs motorcycle racing. We don't race in order to take risks, but risk gives the decision to go racing meaning. About 15 years ago, when I was working my way up through the amateur ranks as a club racer, I realized that I wanted to explain that to a public that took a very simplistic view of risk sports. I knew that in order to come to terms with the topic, I would have to go and race in the place where that risk was most obvious. To fully understand that topic, I had to race on the Isle of Man, in the TT.

Although what Marco Simoncelli did for a living was very dangerous compared to, say, soccer, MotoGP is very safe compared to racing in the TT. Simoncelli was the first MotoGP rider to die in a race since Daijiro Kato in 2003. TT riders are killed every single year.

My book about the TT, Riding Man, is largely a meditation on risk and today and Thursday, I'll post a couple of the most relevant excerpts. Here's the first one, a chapter of the book called...


The TT course is lined with memorials to riders. Some of them are big, permanent features of the TT course. The Guthrie Memorial on the climb up the mountain, which is really just a cairn; the Graham Memorial which is anA-framed chapel that looks west down the Laxey Valley; and now the Dunlop Memorial, a bronze statue up at the Bungalow. They’re the exceptions to the general rule, since Guthrie and Dunlop died on other circuits (Guthrie at the German Grand Prix in ’39, and Dunlop in Estonia in 2000.) Even Graham’s chapel was built far from the bottom of Bray Hill where he crashed and died. Officially, little is done to remember the fallen.

The vast majority of TT memorials are much smaller and unofficial; they’re placed by friends and families at the very spot their loved one died. At first, you don’t see them. Then you notice one because it’s relatively prominent, or because it’s new or freshly cleaned. As you get sensitized, you start to see more and more of them, notice ever subtler and older ones, see the ones that are set further back in the weeds. Eventually, you realize that no matter where you choose to stop along the course if you know what to look for, you can see something that commemorates a fallen rider.
They are permanent plaques in stone or metal, screwed to fences or set in the ground. They are personal mementos, stuffed animals or flags or photos, tacked to trees or jammed between rocks. They are flowers, long dried, brown, wilted and molding, or gone altogether leaving a faded bit of ribbon gradually fraying in the constant wind.

Alpine Cottage is a fast but normally innocuous right -hander between Kirk Michael and Ballaugh. The turn-in marker for this bend is the nearby bus shelter. When I stop to study the corner’s line I notice that the bus stop has a ceramic plaque set into its wall, low down in one corner almost at ground level.


A mile or so down the road, just over the bridge at the entrance to the town of Ballaugh, there’s a fine bronze bas-relief set in a white stucco gate. It is a portrait of a man and since he’s wearing a pudding bowl crash helmet, I’m pretty sure it’s a memorial. I make a note of the name Karl Gall and the date1939, with an eye to checking on them next time I’m in the library.

Later on, I do go to the library and pull the 1939 volume of the local paper. Gall had been one of the leading German riders of the 1930s. In the ’38 TT, Gall had crashed hard at Waterworks and been badly hurt. He’d announced his retirement after that. But as war clouds gathered, the Nazis were determined to wring as much propaganda value as possible from international motorsport. The BMW, DKW and NSU teams all got Nazi support, but it came with heavy pressure to deliver results, especially at prestigious events like the TT. Gall was persuaded to take one more shot at the Senior, on BMW’s all-powerful, supercharged ‘kompressor’ twin. In practice, he lost control going over Ballaugh Bridge, and was flung headfirst into that gatepost. His team-mate, Georg Meier, ended up winning the last prewar Senior on an identical machine.

One time, Steve accompanies me on a bicycle lap. It’s nearly the death of him. I collect him at Ballacraine, which is already a pretty long ride from his house, considering that he doesn’t cycle or get much of any other kind of exercise. We set off up Ballaspur and haven’t gone too far – we’re near Laurel Bank – when he calls out for me to stop. At first I think he just needs a rest, but he leans his bike against a low stone wall and starts to climb over it. “Come here,” he says “I want to show you something.”

It drops away so the wall is only a couple of feet high from the road, but it’s a five-foot jump to the damp and musky forest floor. The Neb, a little stream, gurgles a few yards away. Hidden here behind the wall amongst fiddleheads are three little plaques devoted to Mark Farmer, a popular rider who died in 1994 while riding a Britten.

“I came here once and noticed that one of these plaques had been removed,” said Steve. “I thought ‘Bloody hell, someone’s stolen one of them,’ but the next time I looked it was back and all polished. They’d just removed it for cleaning.”

We clambered back over the wall. As we got on our bikes, Steve said, “I’ll tell you what my friend… I don’t want to be polishing your memorial around here.”

After a while, I start to get a little paranoid about the memorials, about the danger. Then one day I stop to study Kate’s Cottage. There never was a “Kate”, ironically. The cottage belonged to the Tates, but at one TT years back, an excited commentator got tongue-tied and blurted out something about “Kate’s Cottage” and the name stuck. It’s a hairy-looking spot; a narrow, fast, blind, downhill kink with – on top of everything else – a constant trickle of water that flows from a crack in the pavement right on the natural racing line, leaving it damp on all but the hottest days.

Dodging cars, I walk down through the corner to look for (more) hazards on the exit. There, I notice a commercial florist’s bouquet that’s been tied to a concrete fencepost with ribbon. It’s been there a long time, I can tell. There’s a tiny white envelope attached to it; the kind that comes with any basic commercial bouquet, which would normally contain a card with a message from the sender. I slip a finger into the envelope, which has been softened by the elements. It’s empty. No card. No clue who it might have been for, or from. I realize that there is some faded writing on the envelope itself. It says “34th milestone (Kate’s)”.

Something about this one, in particular, sticks in my mind. Sometime later, I walk down the Strand in Douglas and look in on a florist, when it hits me: It wasn’t that someone put the bouquet there, they phoned it in. That was why there was no message in the envelope: there was no recipient, at least no one who needed to read anything. The florist had just written the delivery address down on the envelope, and gone out and tied it to the fence.

The people, friends and family who gather in small groups to place the more permanent memorials are – at least in part – doing something for themselves. Getting ‘closure’, to put a pop pscyh label on it. But whoever phoned in that florist’s order was doing something very different. He or she was never going to see the flowers; they were going to be placed by someone with no connection to anything. And really, except for me, they were destined to go almost unnoticed. It was less a public thing than a private message to an anonymous rider, as if he was still out there somewhere, lapping the course.

Something about that flips a neuron in me, and I suddenly realize that, read as a collective, the hundreds of memorials are not sad. Although they often express loss, “You’ll be missed,” not one of them condemns the TT. If anything, they celebrate it as the high point, which it was, of every life thus recalled.

I don’t want Steve polishing my memorial here either. But I can not think of any place I’d rather have one.

Thanks for reading. Check back next Thursday for a second excerpt from Riding Man -- one that will explain why Marco Simoncelli almost certainly didn't think it could happen to him.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Now is the winter of our discontent

Last Sunday, I had to be at work at 6 a.m., which meant leaving for work at oh-dark 5:30, in the middle of October. In Kansas City, that meant dressing pretty warmly. But I was pleasantly surprised when I stepped outside, swaddled in Aerostich, to feel that it was almost summery. We've had that kind of wonderful Indian Summer/fall here.

I unlocked and uncovered the Triumph. For the last few weeks, I've been commuting on my scooter, because the last time someone tried to steal the Triumph, they left it short-circuited and completely flattened the battery. I recharged it, and it worked in the heat of summer, but when we had the first touch of fall in September and temperatures briefly cooled, the battery lost enough voltage that it wouldn't turn over the starter.

It took me a while to get around to replacing the battery, during which time I got used to commuting on the scooter, even though my route includes about ten miles of divided highway. It was one of those deals where, the first time the Triumph wouldn't start and I had to take the Vino, I thought it was going to be real ordeal, and when it wasn't that bad, I got used to it. To be honest, my full-sized motorcycle is a turd; it wasn't that big a step down to the Vino.

But, with a new battery and (however brief) a new lease on life, the Triumph felt like a big step up from the scooter on Sunday morning. With a warm wind blowing from the south, I picked just the right line on my on-ramp -- one of the two 'interesting' bends along my commute. I'm using interesting pretty loosely. The tires on the Triumph don't have too much mileage on them, but they are about eight years old; it's not like I'm really going to lean it way over.

I've spent the last two weeks droning down the right hand lane on the scooter with the throttle pinned as every car passed me. It was a pleasure to slip through the cars for a change, and I had time for my mind to wander a bit. Actually, it wandered pretty far. to thoughts of T.E. Lawrence riding his Brough Superior. (Actually Brough Superiors, plural; he owned eight or so.) I figured that my Triumph, as crap as it is by modern standards, is probably functionally superior to anything Lawrence owned.

Mentally, I identified the Triumph's weak points (they are legion) and fantasized about actually turning it into a good bike. Of course, even scratching the surface of that project (fork, triple clamp, brakes, wheels and tires, shocks and swing arm, flat slides, and general weight reduction -- just for starters) would cost thousands of bucks. And at the end of the process, no matter how clever I was, the bike would still be nowhere near as fast as, say, a 2004 Suzuki GSX-R750 -- a bike I could find on Craigslist any day of the week, for sale for much less than the cost of building up the Triumph.

Anyway, all that is moot. Because winter's inevitable, and for the first time in a decade or more, I have a regular job; it's not an option for me to stay home writing on snow days. That means that I am going to need to be able to commute to the grocery store in the dead of winter. And that, in turn, means I need some kind of crap car (or preferably a crap small pickup.) Ergo, I'm going to have to sell the Triumph and probably my '64 Honda Dream too to fund it.

The wife knows this, and even she realizes that the longer I wait to sell them, the less I'll get for them. And that if I wait until the snow's piling up, I won't have the luxury of being picky about a used car or truck. We've discussed it; we've been discussing it for at least a month.

"Why are you resisting looking for a truck?" She asked me the other day. It's not so much the looking for a truck part I'm resisting, it's the putting my bikes up for sale in order to pay for the truck part. Still, I got her point.

And, about the time that I got to work last Sunday, having really enjoyed the ride, in spite of the fact that it was just a mundane commute on a very mundane motorcycle -- I realized why I've been resisting switching to four wheels to get to my job.

It's that I realize that the way the economy's going, and working at 12 bucks an hour, if I unload my bikes it's not likely that I'll ever replace them. I'm not totally pessimistic about my own future (although if you've been reading my more political posts lately you know I'm pretty pessimistic about the future of the U.S. as a whole.) There are things I've got in development that, if they come together, will certainly allow me to start riding again, and at a higher level than just commuting to a crap job on a crap bike I basically rescued from a scrap yard. wisdom

But making those good things happen is  not within my control, it will take an element of dumb luck for any of them to come true, and I've got a little too much life experience to rely on luck.

When I think back on my racing 'career', such as it was, I often mull over this bit of... In the hundreds of races I entered, I was sometimes a real underdog; I was more usually destined for a mid-pack finish; and once in a while, I was even a favorite to win or at least run in the lead group.

Regardless of where I could be expected to finish, virtually every time I took my place on a starting grid, I had a plan to win the race. If I was a favorite, the plan may have been pretty simple; get a good start, keep my rhythm, and just flat outride everyone behind me. If I was an underdog, the plan might have counted on a couple of red flags to re-bunch the field, and me blitzing the final restart while, hopefully, faster riders crashed into each other and took each other out ahead of me.

The plans could have been plausible then, or far-fetched. But I always had a plan to win.


Until I got to the TT. There, my only plan was to survive. And while it was great to be there and have the experience, the certainty that I'd spent my life savings to get there and the realization that all I could hope to do was finish... It was bittersweet.

After the TT, I rather foolishly let myself get out of touch with my old career, in the ad business, and I got stuck into motorcycle journalism -- a 'profession' that I should have seen was about to go the way of say, maritime navigation, as a career path.

So now, I'm lucky to have a job that makes me one of the working poor, as a clerk at [NAME OF EMPLOYER REDACTED]. And the odds of working my way up and out of that situation are a.) slim and b.) definitely hinge on luck and elements that are totally out of my own control. The overall direction of the economy and the country are sure as hell not in my favor.

Selling my bikes feels like admitting that I don't have a plan to win; that my goal now is simple survival.

I should place ads for them on Craigslist this week. That's what a pragmatist would do; and buy some crap car or truck that will, at least, allow me to get to work throughout the winter.

But somehow I think I'll ride until it's simply impossible to continue. Why stop hoping now?

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Is there a lesson for motorcycle rules committees in the Dan Wheldon crash?

I heard about Dan Wheldon's fatal IndyCar crash on Sunday, when I dropped by a friend's place for dinner. He told me that crash footage was already on the web, but I haven't seen it; my personal rule is not to (purposely) watch crashes that end anyone's career.

I was at the gym yesterday, which is the only place I'm exposed to actual television. There's a wall of TVs in front of the cardio equipment, and when I looked up I saw snippets of "analysis" on ESPN, CNN, etc. I also saw photos on the New York Times website.

The 'Vegas track was modified a few years ago, when they increased the steepest banking angle to 20 degrees from 12. That meant that top speeds increased to, like, 225 miles an hour. I remember, maybe 15-20 years ago, when Scott Goodyear lapped the Michigan track at 230-something, and people in IndyCar muttered that it was maybe time to do something about those speeds because if anything went wrong, there would be carnage. Last weekend, despite the fact that the rules governing IndyCar are far stricter than they were in Goodyear's day, lap speeds were nearly that high on the 'Vegas track -- and it's a mile shorter than the Michigan superspeedway.

The Newtonian response to Wheldon's crash is note that Energy=Mass times Velocity squared. All else being equal, a crash at 225mph 'IndyCar' speeds dissipates about 60% more energy than one at 180mph 'NASCAR' speeds. Danica Patrick, in the aftermath of the recent IndyCar incident, noted that she wouldn't mind putting those speeds behind her when she completes her transition to NASCAR for the 2012 season.

The Machiavellian response to the Wheldon crash is that it will finally give IndyCar the marketing hook it has needed for about 10 years. "NASCAR is great, too. For girls. Real men race open-wheel cars."

You can pussyfoot around it all you want, but there's no point in denying the fact that a large part of the audience appeal in mass-market car racing is "wantin' ta see wrecks." One of the reasons that I'm of two minds about promoting motorcycle racing to a wider, mass-market, audience is that in our dumbed-down culture, a big crowd will inevitably be watching for wrecks and incapable of understanding the nuances of actual racing.

Don't get me wrong; there's (sometimes) a distinction between wrecks and fatalities. Over the last 30 years or so, NASCAR's been very good at building up the brand value of drivers, and it doesn't want them killed; it's bad for business. So they use restrictor plates and a bunch of other rules that, taken together reduce lap speeds to threshold below which driver survival is (nearly) guaranteed. As a, ahem, side-effect of those rules, however, the cars run very close together in drafting packs and there are plenty of crowd-pleasing wrecks.

Notwithstanding the Newtonian and Machiavellian responses, though, it was obvious that the Wheldon crash was the result of a series of events that unfolded very quickly as a large pack of cars traveled at very high speed in close formation. Clearly one part of that equation is that a rolling start on a speedway yields a closely spaced pack for a long time under almost any conditions. In current IndyCar racing -- it's nearly a spec series -- all cars' performance is very close. The difference between the pole time at 'Vegas, and Wheldon's time -- he qualified way back in 28th place -- was less than 2%.

We've seen a similar compression in qualifying times in MotoGP, with the advent of the spec tire and/or traction control era. The evolution of MotoGP rules continues, and the stated goal of rules changes in recent years has usually been to help (or force) teams to control costs. Much closer qualifying times are a side effect. The only reason we don't see huge packs of bikes racing close together for the first few laps until they string out, is that the grid is so sparse to begin with.

Curiously, the racing's not nearly so good as the tight qualifying results would imply. That's a subject for another post. Of course, the rules of Moto2 make that even more of a spec class, and with its larger grids it has been a crash-fest since its inception. With lots of bikes riding in tight formation for long periods, the occasional crash in which a rider is left on the track in the path of following riders is inevitable. Tomizawa's crash at Imola last year is just one recent example of how much more dangerous such crashes are in the world of motorcycle racing (although it occurred after the field had strung out.)

Restrictor-plate racing has bunched up the fields in AMA Pro Racing flat track competition, too. Races have been pretty thrilling as a result, and we've done OK, safety-wise. We're keeping speeds under control and there's more air fence than there used to be. In the Pro class, the singles races on big tracks are pure drafting battles that are exciting to watch but I think they're a recipe for disaster.

My point in writing this post is that historically, motorcycle racing has been great to watch when there were battles up and down the field, but it doesn't necessarily need huge packs of riders who can't get away from each other.

Maybe it's time to free up the rules and let that happen, before we have our own Dan Wheldon horror crash. You guys all seem to want more TV coverage of motorcycle racing, but I don't want to get my sport on TV that bad.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Superbike dispels rules rumors? Not really. And a note from the Dept. of Unintended Consequences

A few days ago, I noticed an item on the web site, in which SBK director Paolo Ciabatti dispelled rumors that the Superbike World Championship would be shifting its rules package towards something resembling the current Superstock rules.

I presume Ciabatti's fairly terse response was in response to a direct question from John Ulrich or someone else at RRW. I obviously don't know what specific rumors JU might've heard, but ever since MotoGP released rules allowing 1000cc production-based (i.e., Superbike) motors to be used in the top-tier championship, we've been waiting for the other shoe to drop. (Or, given the name of the director of SBK, perhaps I should say, the other slipper.)

Let me digress for a moment. Years ago, I was working at an ad agency that lost a big account. We were all called into a meeting and the President of the company began by saying, "First, I want to assure you that we're not planning to have any layoffs..."

As the meeting broke up, I turned to a co-worker and said, "Well, better update your resume."

"Why?" she asked. "He said there wouldn't be layoffs."

I explained that there is a whole class of corporate statements which, when made, always mean the opposite of what was said. And indeed, within days, I was told to cut a few salaries in my department.

That was exactly what I thought of when reading RRW's SBK statement.

Let's review the facts...

MotoGP is #1
There have been times in recent history when SBK threatened to usurp Grands Prix as the most popular motorcycle racing series -- at least in some major markets, if not the entire world. Think of the days when Fogarty dominated the series and SBK races were far more popular in the UK than Grands Prix. But year in and year out, MotoGP has worn motorcycle racing's daddy pants.

1,000cc production-based motors really do challenge SBK's role as the top 'production-based' series
With MotoGP as the top tier of motorcycle racing, World Superbikes are left to justify the 'World' part of their name. They've long done so by saying, well, we're the championship for production-based machines. Now that the same motors that power SBK bikes will be used to power some motorcycles in MotoGP, the claim that SBK is the top production-based series is, at best, arguable.

A bone-stock production literbike is already 'super'
Anyone who thinks that even a stock BMW S1000R or Kawasaki ZX-10 isn't a super bike is an idiot. So there's no reason that SBK couldn't swap the SBK rules package for the Superstock package. This would allow them to say they had a true world championship for production bikes, as opposed to production-based bikes. From the point of view of manufacturers, as a marketing tool (and that is exactly what racing is) such rules would if anything increase the value of bragging rights. This would leave the existing Superstock class without a raison d'être, but so what? It could be converted into a European showroom stock class, with lights and mirrors and everything. That would be cool, too.


I guarantee that within a year at the most, SBK will announce a new rules package that will force bikes racing the Superbike World Championship to be far closer to stock than they are now. SBK will not publicly admit that they've been pushed into this change because MotoGP's CRTs have moved into the production-based niche. Instead, the justification will be cost control.

"It's just getting too expensive," they'll say, "to build a competitive superbike under the old rules."

But what will the real consequences of the new rules be? Probably not what they expect.

Firstly, you need to realize that what matters is the total economy of the series. There are a whole bunch of businesses involved; teams, broadcasters, promoters, tracks, and of course sponsors, etc.

While they don't all have to turn a profit in any given year, the total amount of money flowing into those businesses as a result of participating had better be at least a little bit more than the total amount of money flowing out.

Now, the vast majority of Backmarker readers are not big-shots in the world of motorcycle racing. But a lot of you have built a race bike or two. So you can't be blamed if you think that, as a club racer, a huge chunk of your budget is going to go into actually building your bike. And it would be easy to think that building the bikes is the biggest cost associated with putting on the SBK series, too.

You'd be wrong. I had an old friend who occasionally said the most ridiculous shit, but also was occasionally wise. One of the wise things he once offered up was, "Any sufficiently large difference of degree becomes a difference of kind." Running a world championship isn't like club racing, but at a different scale; it's a whole different kind of business.

Once you start flying to Australia for races, or transporting a two-story, two-truck-wide hospitality area with a full restaurant-style kitchen, or bringing a mobile hospital to the track, or bringing 15 camera crews and full production facility to the track... in the context of all those costs, what's actually spent building the bikes is almost trivial.

Let me offer up a valid lesson from club racing. At the club level, you typically have some kind of Supersport or Superstock class for bikes that are not too heavily modified. And you have a 'Sportsman' or 'Superbike' class where almost anything goes. Now, while you could spend an almost limitless amount on your Sportsman-class bike, because there are almost no limits under the rules.

But the fact is that competing in Sportsman is cheaper than competing in Supersport. Why? Because to be competitive in Supersport at the club level, you need to buy a whole new bike every time some OEM releases a new and much-improved model. Whereas, the Sportsman racer can keep tweaking on the same bike for years and years, updating it with parts being sold by frustrated Supersport racers who are parting out last year's bike to pay for this year's model.

Once SBK adopts a much more restrictive set of rules, manufacturers are going to realize the hard way that in order to win, they have to homologate an improved base model.

The cost of developing and homologating a new road bike makes the cost of operating a race team seem like chump change.

My advice to InFront Motorsports is thus, beware of the law of unintended consequences.

Is "Occupy Wall Street" the left's Tea Party? Lessons from (recent) history...

The Tea Party started out as a grassroots movement. But a playing field doesn't just have to be level for big-money pro sports like politics. It has to be astroturfed so it looks good under the TV lights. Once shadowy Republican supporters like the Koch brothers realized that the original Tea Party movement could be co-opted to re-energize the Republicans' base -- which had been demoralized by Obama's election -- they poured millions of dollars into the movement and, more importantly, through 'think tanks'  like the Cato Institute and the Heritage Foundation, they started orchestrating media coverage and feeding those 'grassroots' 'real Americans' their talking points.

The irony that the Tea Partiers are by-and-large aging, middle-class, and poorly educated -- i.e., the very people the Koch bros. are committed to squeezing to death -- has thus far been lost on everyone, but the Tea Party definitely worked for the Republicans during the mid-term elections.

So, I wondered, would Warren Buffett (or some other liberal rich guy) seize a similar opportunity presented by Occupy Wall Street? God knows that the Democrats could stand to be re-energized by a popular uprising of people with no previous political knowledge (and no obvious political or economic sophistication) now, just like the Republiban Party needed it in 2009. Would Occupy Wall Street become, in effect, the Dems' Tea Party?

Any hope that Liberal money would parachute a spin doctor into the Wall Street encampment to organize them was dashed a week or so back, when the nascent movement finally released a rambling, ranting manifesto. It read as if it was written by a high-school girl writing with a ballpoint with a daisy attached by rubber band, who had eighteen people looking over her shoulder and adding their two cents' worth; it covered just about every global ill from overpaid bankers to that low-oxygen 'dead zone' in the ocean, to the exorbitant prices for Burning Man tickets.

I hope the Democrats do co-opt Occupy Wall Street, but not for the same reason other people do.

Here's a lesson from history: You take a loosely organized movement -- a rabble, and it doesn't matter if it's  the Taliban, or the Tea Party -- and an organized group tries to co-opt that rabble, and harness its energies towards the organized group's ends, objectives, or interests -- the way the CIA co-opted the Mujahideen as an anti-Soviet force in Afghanistan, or the Koch bros. harnessed the Tea Party -- the same thing always happens. At first, the rabble gratefully accept support and progress is made towards the financiers' objectives.

Then, the rabble decides that rather than take direction, it will dictate policy. The Mujahideen morphed into the Taliban. The Tea Party stopped endorsing Republican candidates and started choosing their own. Virtually every Republican elected during the last cycle made that idiotic no-tax pledge in order to placate the Tea Party. Think about what that really means: every candidate basically tied one hand behind his own back before even getting to Washington; before even really learning what challenges lay ahead.
OK, this particular crazy may have dropped out of the picture but don't kid yourself, the Republiban Party is desperately trying to rein in the Tea Party before they turn the GOP presidential nomination into a circus. The Tea Party never really understood the history behind the Boston Tea Party, but as it evolves it resembles another famous tea party; the one in Alice in Wonderland.

This gets me to my point. If the Democrats try to co-opt Occupy Wall Street, the rabble will soon enough decide they don't just want advice, funding and organizational support. The rabble will want to dictate terms to Democratic candidates. And while the Tea Party may well prove to be the Republibans' undoing, the Dems' desperately need to pushed to the left after years of pandering to vocal right-wing grassroots (and astroturf) movements, despite the fact that the acolytes of those right-wing movements were never going to vote for them anyway.

I hope that Occupy Wall Street does co-opt the Democratic Party. Obama has spent the last few weeks experimenting with the tiniest step to the left; he's using stronger language in campaigning for the 'jobs' bill, and the 'millionaire' tax. But he still acts as if he's afraid of offending American households earning $250k or even a million plus per year. That's a group that (the two Warrens -- Buffet and Beatty -- excepted) isn't going to vote for him anyway!

In the last couple of weeks, I've heard the most ridiculous stuff go unchallenged. Some Republiban congressman from Colorado said, "Some people making a million dollars a year aren't rich, they're the guy operating the corner dry cleaner."

Obama should have jumped on that, and said, "What is this guy, on crack?!? The only launderers making a million bucks a year are money launderers. How out of touch are the Republicans to think that a guy  operating a corner dry cleaner is pulling in seven figures?" Then he should have organized a town hall meeting of dry cleaners and asked for a show of hands of the ones making over a million. They'd roll in the aisles.

And the Democrats aren't challenging the trite assertion that there are places -- Manhattan, Cupertino, or the Hamptons, for example, where an household income of $250k or even $1M doesn't make you rich.

Obama needs to say, "Look, I understand that if you live in an apartment overlooking Central Park in New York, or if parking valets in Silicon Valley aren't impressed with your Ferrari because its just a 'California' and not a GTB, and you're making half a million a year, you may not be rich compared to your neighbors. But if you are going to argue that you're just another struggling middle-class American, you need to vote Republiban, because you're not going to like what I stand for. I stand for you guys paying something forward, so other people can have the same great opportunities that America gave to you."

Obama needs to say, "Hey, if you think the earth is only 5,000 years old, and you want every school day to start with a Christian prayer, you need to vote Republiban, because I stand for the separation of church and state."

Obama needs to say, "If you don't think global warming's a problem, and that we're causing it or at least making it a whole lot worse, then you need to vote Republiban, because I stand for science and against a new Dark Age."

Obama needs to say, "You know what, we're going to put a public health care option back on the table. If you're happy with your massive insurance premiums, if you're happy with enormous copays, if you're happy with paying $400 for an aspirin if you go to the hospital, if you're happy with being denied coverage for pre-existing conditions, if you're happy with Byzantine billing practices, just vote for someone else."

The Democrats need to realize that they've been way to careful to avoid riling a vocal minority who will never vote for them anyway. If Obama is afraid to come right out and take a stand against right-wing fringe groups backed by a handful of billionaires, then the Democrats need to put forth a nominee who will take that stand.

If it takes Occupy Wall Street to force that to happen, so be it.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Bright’s Star: A rare BSA factory ‘tracker

Every year, my local motorcycle club, the Heart of America Motorcycle Enthusiasts - aka ‘the HoAMEboys’ holds a bike show here in Kansas City. This year, the bike that caught my eye was a Gold Star factory flat tracker. BSA only made 200 of them, in 1956, to meet AMA homologation requirements. They were sold through BSA dealers until the spring of ’59. 
Ken Bright at the Airline Museum in Kansas City, this past summer.
The bike I saw belonged to Ken Bright, a 68 year-old guy from Ponca City, Oklahoma. At the show, he was chatting with another old flat track racer whose t-shirt identified him as a member of the ‘White Platers’ - a club of ex-flat trackers who had all carried the white number plate that identified them as AMA ‘Expert’ licensed racers at one time or another.
Most racing Gold Star fuel tanks had two petcocks where you’d expect them - one on either side of the tank. But since Bright’s optional aluminum tank was used for flat track only, it had both petcocks on the left side of the tank, from where they drained into a 1 1/2-inch Amal GP carb.
This is part of a two-page ad BSA ran for the racer-only, no-warranty Gold Star flat trackers in 1956.
I expected to hear that he’d had a long racing career on the Gold Star, kept his bike, and restored it after he retired. But I was wrong. He’d gotten his start in the early ‘60s, riding a Bantam in local scrambles. When he wore out the Bantam, he upgraded to a 250cc BSA, racing the occasional half-mile in the Novice class, which was restricted to 250cc.
It was no match for the two-strokes that were coming onto the flat track scene at that time, and Ken basically gave up and moved to Oklahoma City to go to college. That summer (it was 1966) he got a call from a Yamaha dealer in Topeka, Kansas, named Stan Newton. He offered Ken a ride on a TD1B road racer that he’d converted into a flat tracker by replacing the rear shocks with struts and installing a wide handlebar. 
“The road racer would go about 130 miles an hour,” Ken told me, “so obviously the flat tracker was fast, but it didn’t want to turn.” 
This photo was taken at the Indiana State Half-Mile Championship in 1967. Bright, at left, won the Amateur class. Although he made his bones riding Yamaha 'strokers, he's seen here on his sponsor's Gold Star, which at this point was 10 years old and well past its sell-by date. The guy in the glasses won the Expert class that year -- he's AMA Hall of Famer Babe DeMay, who went on to have a noted career as a tuner, too. DeMay's Ken Maely shirt (what would that bring on Ebay, these days?) the corn-fed Midwestern girl in the shades; the hat and attitude of the unidentified Amateur class winner; the Gold Star, Harley-Davidson KR, and Yamaha 'stroker. This IS flat-tracking in the 'sixties. I love it.
Ken spent that summer on what was called the ‘Kansas fair circuit.’ Actually they raced from South Dakota to Oklahoma, traversing an area at least four times the size of Great Britain, with about one-sixth the population. 
After finishing third on the ill-handling Yamaha at Sturgis, Ken pulled into the pits feeling pretty good, until Newton told him that he could ride faster than that himself. “Stan told me that Yamaha had sent five engines from Japan to Sturgis that year, and that he really wanted to beat the factory bikes,” Ken recalled. “ The next day I won the race.” That cemented their relationship.
Ken earned enough Novice points on the Yamaha to enter the Amateur class at national races, where he needed a 500 (or a 750cc Harley) to be competitive.
“I’d never even ridden a 500,” he told me. “But I had a friend named Ted Davis, who used to travel with Dick Mann. We used to pit next to those two, and we were in awe of Bugsy; he made everything look so easy.” The fact that Dick Mann was a regular on the Kansas fair circuit gives you an idea of just how competitive regional flat tracking was in the Midwest. 
Ted hooked Ken up with Cappy Crockett, a BSA dealer from Cottonwood Falls, Kansas. “Cappy was known for one thing,” Ken recalled. “He always had the ugliest bikes in the pit.” 
“The Gold Star was narrow, and it handled beautifully,” Ken told me. “It had a lot of torque, and when you shut the throttle, it really slowed down - back then, we didn’t have any brakes at all. Then, when you got back on the gas, you could steer it with the rear wheel.”
In one of the first races he ran on Cappy’s bike, he crashed. “It must have sucked in some dirt,” Ken recalled, “because the next time we ran it, it got sicker and sicker. But we couldn’t get parts to fix it.” 
There were several AMA National races on the Kansas circuit, and Ken was desperate to win an Amateur National. The Amateur races were occasionally even faster than Expert races, so that wasn’t easy. After Cappy’s Gold Star had crapped out. Ken borrowed one of Dick Mann’s bikes, but it was worn out, too. 
His best Amateur finish - a fourth at Sedalia - came on a borrowed Triumph 500 twin. “It was a 14-lap race, and I led 11 laps, until I pushed the front and got off the line. Three guys got underneath me, and I couldn’t get back past them,” he said a little wistfully. “I sure wish I’d been on my Gold Star.” 
Bright, on a borrowed Triumph, on the groove, and on the gas in Oklahoma City in '67. He finished fourth in the Amateur class, and collected $18.10 for his day's work. Although he picked up enough points to move to the Expert class, the writing was on the wall -- or in Bright's case, the blackboard. He moved back to Ponca City and became a middle-school math teacher.
Even in the Expert class, it was tough making a living. Fred Nix earned the equivalent (in today's money) of less than $900 for winning that GNC round. Which, just look at the guys he beat, was no small task in those days... For the record, although it's still awfully hard to make a living as an Expert flat tracker, winning a National now pays in the $6,000 range.
Finishes like that were enough to earn him an Expert’s white plate. But the next year, he couldn’t get a ride. He borrowed a couple more bikes, and did well, but when no sponsors came through, he gave up on the fair circuit, went back to Ponca City, and taught math in middle school. For 30 years.
He carried a torch for that Gold Star the whole time, and a few years ago he set out to find one to restore. I asked him if the bike I’d seen was Cappy’s old bike and he laughed and told me that, no, he’d wanted a nice one. Not a crappy one. 
Bright finally found a Gold Star worthy of a detailed restoration...
Not that you can be too picky; they’re thin on the ground. Even bare frames can go for as much as $10,000. After a few years of looking, he found a complete bike that he took delivery of in a bunch of boxes and buckets. It was literally a basket case, but it was all there and now, Ken owns the nicest, most original Gold Star factory flat tracker that I’ve laid eyes on. He still lives on the outskirts of Ponca City, and about once a month he starts it up, runs it a mile or so down the road, turns around and races back to the barnyard, dreaming of what might’ve been.

Many thanks to Ken Bright, who supplied all the images for this post (except the top photo, which I took.)

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

'H' could stand for 'has-been'. Or hero...

As I rode in to work on Sunday, I mulled over John Hopkins' bad luck in finishing second, by .006 seconds, in the British Superbike Championship. Hopkins had an amazing season in the UK, riding unfamiliar tracks in a new team. He was in the hunt all year and but for -- take your pick -- his MotoGP hand injury or a machine problem in the second leg of the final BSB triple-header, he would have won the championship in his 'rookie' season over there.
Hopkins, though only 28, has already seemed washed up as a result of injuries at least once. Now, he's a battered vet, but he nearly won the British Superbike Championship on his first go.
Hopkins is not old; he's still in his twenties. But a year or two ago, he seemed done in by Schwantz-like repeated injuries. When he dropped from MotoGP to an American Superbike Championship series satellite team, many in the motorcycle racing world classified him as a has-been. His career trajectory was definitely down. His old mentor, John Ulrich, found a place for him at M4 Suzuki but even Ulrich felt that Hopkins had misrepresented his race fitness.

As I trundled along my commute, my thoughts ranged to two other 'old' riders who've also had good seasons. Josh Hayes, who's pushing 40, won his second AMA Pro Superbike title in a thrilling final too. He finally came to the fore after toiling in a series where if you weren't on a Yoshimura Suzuki, you had no real chance of winning. (And, even if you were, you had to beat Ben Spies and/or Mat Mladin.) He's another guy that, just three or four years ago, you would have said was destined to 'best of the rest' status -- which is not too attractive to sponsors and team owners in a sport that places a pedophile's priorities on youth.
All things come to those who wait. In Hayes' case, he had to wait for  AMA Pro to level the Superbike playing field in the U.S. His 2011 title defense was as hard-fought as his 2010 series, despite the absence of nemesis Mat Mladin. Now, he's slated for "a few laps" on a Yamaha MotoGP bike at the end-of-season test. I suppose that if he goes well, he might be in line for a wild-card ride (or three) in the U.S. next year, but there's no chance he'll actually move to MotoGP -- he's far to old. Not in reality, just in the minds of the motorcycle racing powers-that-be.
Then there's Nicky Hayden, 30. Although he may 'only' be languishing in seventh place in the MotoGP standings, 2011's been a season of redemption for him, too. Sure he won the AMA Superbike title in 2002 in dominant fashion, and won the 2006 MotoGP Championship, but he's also struggled for long periods. In those years when he was the 'B' team-mate at both Honda and Ducati, he continued to shoulder the 'A' testing load.
It could just be me, but Nicky Hayden seems a little less haunted this year. Is it that now the world's seen that even Valentino Rossi can't ride the Ducati MotoGP bike? And that Nicky's occasionally out-qualifying Rossi?
It must have been frustrating when Stoner could make the Ducati GP10 work (at least some of the time) and Nicky couldn't. Then, Ducati teamed him with Valentino Rossi for 2011. I guess we all knew who the teacher's pet would be in that class.

But it turns out that even the greatest living motorcycle racer couldn't make the GP11 work. Despite the fact that Ducati is (obviously) putting most of its efforts into Rossi's side of the garage -- despite the fact that Rossi gets all the best new stuff first -- Hayden's outridden Rossi several times. So no matter how long it's been since his last win, Nicky's had a few moral victories this year.

Where I'm going with this is that after a decade of increasing pressure to start kids road racing at younger and younger ages, there's still rewards to be reaped from experience and perseverance. I know that plenty of young riders would have looked at all three of these guys at the beginning of the 2011 season and thought, "I should have that ride."(OK, kids would look at two of the three and think that; most would admit that Yamaha would have been crazy to let Hayes walk away with his #1 plate.)

That's especially true of Hopkins in BSB. Most young racers (whose attention spans are scarcely longer than a fruit fly's) had forgotten his stalwart years in MotoGP (where he put in a yeoman's effort racing for teams in which winning was really not even possible.) Many European riders resent Hayden's Ducati deal, which they see as a reflection of the importance of the U.S. market to Ducati's sales.

So, many 'young guns' probably think they deserve those guys'  rides. But the truth is, no kid could have done anywhere near as well as these 'old guns' in their respective teams/situations. So what's with the obsession with pushing kids as young as 12 into road racing?

Hopper, Hayes, and Hayden didn't put in creditable seasons this year because they started racing as little kids. They racked up good results this year because of the years of toil they put in after they stopped being young guns.

I don't really know what Hayes' early childhood riding experience was; I do admit that both Hopper and Hayden were racing at a pretty high level from a pretty young age and that both of them were backed to the hilt as kids by supportive families. Nicky started out as a dirt tracker. (If he'd stayed racing flat track, he would have won multiple Grand National Championships by now, but he'd probably still need an off-season job, so I don't begrudge his switch to asphalt.)

But when I talked to him by phone earlier this season, he told me that he never rides flat track -- even mini-bikes -- in the off-season any more, because it screws him up for his MotoGP bike. So Nicky's early riding experience is definitely not the experience he put to use to out-ride Valentino Rossi several times this year.

My point in all this is, your kid doesn't have to be a young gun to succeed. You don't have to rush your kid into road racing. This year, even the guys who once were young guns succeeded because of the experience they amassed over years of ups and downs on the way to becoming old guns.

To teams and sponsors I say: Sure, keep an eye on those young guns. But bear in mind that Suzuki, Yamaha, and Ducati would be way behind where they are now if they'd hung up their old guns a season or two ago.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Is the NCR M4 'One-Shot' the perfect motorcycle for these times?

Unless you were at Brands Hatch all weekend, watching a riveting British Superbike final, you are probably aware that NCR -- a small, Italian, specialty sport-bike manufacturer -- unveiled the NCR M4 and it's even-higher-spec brother the 'One-Shot' during the Barber AHRMA weekend. These are motorcycles powered by tuned versions of a pretty low-tech air-cooled Ducati motor (think Monster 1100) but which embody Lotus founder Colin Chapman's famous dictum that, "First you design the [car], then you add lightness."
Recession? What recession? There's never been a better time to sell a $70,000 toy.
NCR is owned by Poggipolini -- a company that specializes in supplying magnesium, titanium, and carbon components to the motorsports industry -- so they've added plenty of lightness to both the 'base' model M4 (claimed weight: 286 pounds) and even more lightness to the One-Shot (claimed weight: 278 pounds.) One shot, indeed. That could just about describe my physical reaction to seeing the photos and reading the specs. Luckily,  I was home alone in front of my computer.

Talk about adding lightness! These things will also add some lightness to your wallet, since the base model is $50k and the One-Shot is $70k. So far, NCR has released only American pricing, which gives you some idea of where they expect to do the bulk of their sales.

You might think that with the U.S. mired in a deep recession -- one that hit the American motorcycle industry especially hard -- NCR is pretty crazy to think that we'll be snapping up $70k motorcycles which, as beautiful as they are, will certainly not help the average mid-life-crisis track day geek or trust-fund baby lap any faster than he would on an eight year-old GSX-R750.

On closer examination though, the One-Shot is actually the perfect motorcycle for these times.

You see, it's true that the large majority of American families have seen a steady erosion of their wealth and purchasing power over the last decade or more. But middle-class families'  wealth has not disappeared, it's merely been transferred to the richest 1% of the U.S. population and especially to the richest point one percent.

After the release of (I'll pick an arbitrary point in history) the 1986 GSX-R750, sport bike fans found themselves in an amazing situation. Any average Joe with an average job could afford to buy a motorcycle with a performance envelope that, if you wanted to find it in a car, you would've had to be a millionaire.

Although anyone who was really looking could see that Americans were on an unsustainable spending spree buoyed by an obvious bubble in the housing market (and irrational optimism in the stock market) that halcyon period lasted more than 20 years.

Now, it's over. If the average Joe has a job today, he's hunkered down and not wasting money on new motorcycles.

But things have never been better for the very richest Americans. When that first Gixxer was introduced, the average CEO made about 75 times the salary of the average worker in his company. Now, he pulls in about five hundred times the average worker's wage.

So the 99.9% of motorcycle buyers who never could have afforded the One-Shot, still can't. The wealthiest 0.1% of Americans -- the only ones who were ever going to buy it -- have more money than ever. And with the Republiban, oops, make that 'Republican' Party in control of the legislature, there's no prospect of even people earning a million-plus per year being asked to pay forward the opportunities that America provided to them.

Recession? What recession? NCR has perfect grasp of the American motorcycle buying public's ability to afford the One-Shot. The only people who ever could have afforded it can afford it more than ever.