Monday, January 31, 2011

A note from the Department of "Holy Crap!" Cycle World part of 100+ magazine sale

I see on the groovy Hell for Leather web site that Hachette-Filipacchi  has sold over 100 magazine properties, including Cycle World, for an amount approaching $1,000,000,000. It's food for thought; while the business press is gushing about the sale of flagship fashion magazine Elle, I can't help but wonder what valuation was put on Cycle World (still the world's largest motorcycle magazine with circ. of 300,000+.) Just dividing the number of magazines by the total price, I see that they average about $8 million per.

In any case, this puts a slightly different twist on Hachette's restructuring of CW, which was begun last year.

I've been meaning to write a bit more about what CW has to do, in order to survive and flourish at a time that's proving awfully tough for North American print magazines. Maybe this will push me to move that topic up the agenda.

More soon...

Who is Vinnie Mandzak, and how did he resurrect the Catalina Grand Prix?

The first time I ever went to Catalina Island, I boarded the ferry at Dana Point, in a cold drizzle uncharacteristic of balmy Southern California. The journey took about and hour and a half in rolling groundswell, before we arrived at the harbor and the island's one real town, Avalon.

From the ferry terminal, a curving and palm-lined promenade along the harbor ended at the 'Casino.' (It was never a gambling hall; rather a huge, beautiful art deco film house and, above that, a famous ballroom.) Narrow streets fanning out from the harbor were lined with quaint hotels.

It's not the Isle of Man but it's the closest thing we've got to it. There's a Who's Who of '50s AMA stars in these photos. And why don't our current stars have cool nicknames like Chuck 'Feets' Minert?
The weather had something to do with it, but I had the profound feeling that I was back on the Isle of Man. The only obvious difference was that I couldn't find a decent pub. I did find a sports bar called The Locker Room. If anything, it smelled worse than its namesake. It was a dark dive with big-screen TVs in the front room and pool tables in the back. On the walls, there was a better than average display of sports memorabilia. The frames held mix of local history and signed posters of athletes from 'mainstream' sports.

And, there in the corner, were eight or ten great old black & white photos of motorcycle racers. Considering the company they're in – O.J. Simpson (murderer); Tiger Woods (philanderer); Mark McGwire (steroid user); Pete Rose (gambling addict); and Mike Tyson (rapist, ear-biter) – you'd almost wonder why motorcyclists ever got a such a bad rap...

The reason those old photos were on the wall was that for eight years in the 1950s, Catalina was a sort of baby Isle of Man. The Catalina Grand Prix was inspired by the TT, though since there was hardly any paved roads on the island, it was a race for scramblers. It attracted the best riders on the West Coast, and the course – which was part asphalt, part gravel road, part trail – put a premium on versatility.

Although there were faster desert races – Catalina race average speeds topped out around 35mph – this was one of the highest profile races in the western U.S. It was the first American race for the Yamaha factory. Proximity to Hollywood meant that a few stars came over to ride, lending the event even more glamor. Film star Lee Marvin and prolific character actor Keenan Wynn both rode the Catalina GP, and stunt man Bud Ekins won the Open class in '55.

There were two different courses used during the races. Lightweight bikes raced 10 laps of a 6-mile course. The premier class bikes raced on a 10-mile course that started right in town at the harbor, and climbed to about 1,500 feet in the first three or four miles on a gravel road that was just a series of linked hairpins with a wall of dirt and rocks on one side and steep drops on the other. It would have been dangerous but an absolute blast. At the high point, the course took a much more technical turn, descending a ridgeline back towards town.

Avalon is laid out at the mouth of a narrow canyon, where the canyon opens out onto the harbor. So it's roughly triangular. At the 'back' of the town, there's a huge monument to William Wrigley Jr., the founder of the Wrigley chewing gum business. Wrigley was from Chicago, about 3,000 miles to the east. But in the early part of the 20th century he acquired all the stock of the Catalina Island Company, which effectively made him the owner of the island, and he spent quite a bit of time there. More to the point, so did his son P.K. Wrigley, who was an avid motorcyclist – which is how the race got approved in the first place.

Sorry, these guys are just way cooler than Travis Pastrana. Is it that pudding bowls are inherently cooler than trucker hats? They are, but it's also that modern racers have failed to learn this essential lesson: being cool is like being fast; it never really works out if you're trying too hard. (Photo: Catalina Island Museum, thanks)
Back in the day, race bikes roared past the Wrigley monument, raising clouds of dust. At that time, to be called a 'Grand Prix' (according to the AMA) a race had to have a percentage of asphalt. So the racers raced right through the center of Avalon, along the harbor front, each lap. From '51-'58, the list of Catalina winners included many riders who'd wind up in the American Motorcycle Association's Hall of Fame: Walt Fulton, Nick Nicholson, Aub LeBard, John McLaughlin, Marty Dickerson, Walt Axthelm, Ed Kretz, Bud Ekins, Chuck Minert... the grids were stacked with America's best racers.

Unfortunately, the Catalina Grand Prix was the victim of its own success – by 1958, it was attracting 300 competitors (the motorcycles were brought over by barge) and 7,000 fans. That was more than twice the island's population. So although the organizers of the event were inspired by the Isle of Man TT races, they never figured out how to make the locals enjoy – or at least tolerate – being overrun by motorcyclists. Eventually, even P.K. Wrigley couldn't convince the locals it was worth the trouble.

That was then. This is now...

Over the years, lots of people (including veteran flat track promoter Eddie Mulder) have claimed they were going to resurrect the Catalina Grand Prix, but no one's succeeded. In fact, about 363 days a year, you can't even bring a motorcycle (or any other vehicle) to the island unless you're a resident. It's a funny little place, with only a few roads. The most common vehicle, by far, is a golf cart. There's a sprinkling of mopeds and scooters, and the occasional motorcycle. You'd think it would be a great place for a dirt bike, but almost 90% of Catalina's land area is a nature preserve that's closed to vehicles. I had to get a special permit from the island conservancy just to walk the old 10-mile course.

So when I heard that a Beverly Hills car salesman (OK, he's the sales manager at Mercedes-Benz of Beverly Hills) named Vinnie Mandzak, was going to stage it again, I was skeptical. But Vinnie did manage to pull it off, attracting nearly 800 riders to an AMA-sanctioned weekend event last December.

What's even more surprising is that Catalina was an exceptionally difficult event to coordinate, what with the transportation issues, dealing with the Island Conservancy... Even California state wildlife officials had to get involved, to ensure the races didn't harm a rare species of fox. And it was the first race of any kind that Vinnie had ever promoted!

So, who is this Vinnie Mandzak guy, and how did he succeed where others had failed?

A promoter has to wear many hats. Not necessarily any quite like this though. His sartorial taste notwithstanding, I do not recommend entering the Beverly Hills Mercedes franchise unless you are actually ready to buy a new Benz, because this guy is one hell of a salesman. Vinnie Mandzak portrait by the incomparable Joe Bonello.
I guess I'm just a better salesman,” he told me with a laugh.

Mandzak is 57. He told me that he was a guy who came to motorcycles relatively late in life, and now races the Big 6 series in some veteran classes. He's got the gift of the gab, and apparently he does some announcing at those races, when he's not on course himself. He hadn't really even been aware of Catalina's racing history until a few years ago, when he was in the Hilltoppers club house looking at old photos.

Like a lot of 'born agains' his enthusiasm is fresh. “I said, 'We have to do this again,'” Vinnie told me. “They said, 'Forget it, people have tried.' I said, 'I'm going to do it.' They said, 'You'll never get it approved.' I said, 'Watch me.'”

He started working on the event nearly full-time, coordinating with AMA District 37, The Catalina Island Company (which owns virtually all of the island), the Catalina Conservancy, and the city of Avalon.

With the race's near-mythical status in the U.S. there was no question the stars would come out again; Travis Pastrana raced, Ricky Johnson – a 7-time AMA MX/SX champ came out. Even the ageless On Any Sunday star Malcolm Smith entered. “I limited the entries (to the number we could handle transportation-wise) and you should have heard the stories people told me, trying to get in after I'd closed registrations,” he laughed. “Now I know how cops feel listening to people's excuses for speeding.”

As in the 1950s, several hundred race bikes were brought over by barge. Since container space was at a premium, even pro riders made do with minimal pits and spares. The nature preserve that covers most of the island was off limits, and while the bikes paraded through town, they didn't race through the main streets they way they once did. Still, Mandzak and his crew managed to lay out a six-mile course that combined several miles of fast fire roads clinging to steep hillsides with a modern motocross section, and there was even a bit of asphalt. About 2½ miles of the course had been part of the old 'Saturday course.'

There were no practice sessions, so the only way for the pro racers in the premier classes to reconnoiter the circuit was by entering in one of the (many!) support classes. There were six races per day broken into over 30 classes from little kids on minibikes to guys like Homer Knapp, 70, who raced the same '29 Harley-Davidson this year that he did in '54 and '57!

Although Vinnie was unable to arrange for the race to pass right through 'downtown' Avalon, as it did in the '50s, the bikes paraded through town on the way to the start area. (The reason cited for keeping the race out of the town proper is that the course would have cut off emergency access to a new condo complex; it was a problem they didn't have to solve in the old days, when there was nothing much past the Casino.) Joe Bonello photo, thanks.
Malcolm Smith's son Alexander, who's making a name for himself in extreme enduro events like Red Bull Romaniacs, and Last Man Standing, told me, “My dad and I were just walking around in shock, amazed that they were even letting us race on the island again.”

Once the races got going, riders found that the fire roads were fast and smooth, although they developed some ruts and big holes as the races wore on. “It was like a flat track race, but there was a 1,000 foot cliff at the edge of the track,” said Alexander. “And when it rained partway through the Pro race, it was as slick as ice!”

The motocross section included a few doubles and step-ups that rewarded commitment, but overall that part of the course was more like a scrambles, or vintage motocross track. Kurt Caselli, an ISDE star, led the premier-class “Pro 18+” race early but a bad air filter let his engine ingest a bunch of dirt, bringing him to a stop.

The course was well suited to riders used to fast southwestern desert races, and indeed Kendall Norman – a four-time winner of the Baja 1000 – edged out motocrosser Sean Collier and Edurocross ace Colton Haacker for the premier-class win. The race was a full two hours long, so everyone had to refuel, but no one was pacing themselves. “It was flat out, balls-to-the-wall the whole time,” Alexander told me, when it was over.

Vinnie, pictured here, raced his own '81 Maico 490 - not a bike for the faint-hearted! He lost the rear brake partway through, so it wasn't exactly a moment of glory for him. But he was definitely the hero of the day, anyway. And, he says he's on the verge of resurrecting another historic event, too. I wonder which one?..
As in the old days, the races were free for the fans, and they were were hugely popular with fans and racers both. Vinnie also raced in one of the vintage classes. “For me, the best part of the whole thing was bringing the young guys and the old guys together,” Mandzak told me. “I mean, at one point I had Travis Pastrana on one side of me and Malcolm Smith on the other side of me, and they were telling me how great this event was. During the parade through town, my goggles fogged up because I started crying!”

The event pulled in nearly $200 grand in entry fees alone. I asked Vinnie if he'd turned a profit. “Let's just say that when I was working all year to put this event on, I told people that if when it was over I had enough money left over to buy a BSA Catalina Scrambler I'd be happy. Have you seen what those things go for? There was no way!” He told me that the event would have cost at least $250 grand to put on if he'd paid cash for everything, but that a number of key suppliers volunteered their time and effort because they felt they were about to make history.

Red Bull came late to the party, but Vinnie's grateful for their promotional assistance. “They put the icing on the cake, they put the cake in a nice box, and then they advertised the cake,” was how he put it. “They told me they'd had something like 16 million hits on their web site in the two months after the race, so they're happy.”

He's not one to take all the credit. While we talked, Vinnie was careful to list many people who'd helped him put on the event.

Mandzak's agreement to promote the race was a one-year deal, but Catalina Island's local economy relies entirely on tourism. Estimates of the number of fans ranged from 5,000 to 20,000 – although that's a wild exaggeration. Still, all the ferries were full and they had to put on extra boats; bars and restaurants were packed, and every hotel room and holiday rental was booked – a time of year that would normally be slow on the island. Mandzak says he's already negotiating to put the race on again in 2011.

America's coolest race is back.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Key engineering advance #3: Throttle control

Here’s a note from the Department of Scary Thoughts: many early motorcycle “carburetors” were actually pans of gasoline that were heated by an open flame. Vapors produced that way were then burned in the cylinders. Back then, “crash and burn” was not simply a figure of speech.

Spray carburetors were obviously much safer, but early carbs lacked throttles. Riders controlled speed by simply choking the air intake, or by changing their spark advance.

Oscar Hedstrom, the engineer behind Indian “motocycles” was one of the first people to devise a throttle-controlled carburetor. That was in 1901.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Key engineering advance #2: Pneumatic tires

J.B. Dunlop invented the air-filled rubber 'tyre'. At this point in history, it's still an advance for bicyclists. But old J.B.'s beard is already pure badass biker...
Early bicycles were called “bone shakers” because they ran on steel-shod wooden wheels. Considering that most roads of the period were paved with cobblestones, the name was an understatement. At about the same time as the safety frame bicycle made riding safe, an Irish veterinarian named Dunlop (yes, that Dunlop) invented the air-filled rubber tire, making bicycles reasonably comfortable.

Friday, January 28, 2011

The engineering advances that led to the modern motorcycle

Modern motorcycles pack so much technology and so much performance into small – and surprisingly affordable – packages that we should all be careful not to let the government realize how much fun we’re having… otherwise, they’ll find a way to tax our riding pleasure!

Getting to where we are today took a series of engineering advances that almost all first appeared a surprisingly long time ago. Many of the gizmos on modern bikes were developed for use in aircraft, another field in which powerful, lightweight motors were highly valued. Others were invented and perfected by creative engineers in several locations at about the same time, or were invented long before they could be made commercially viable. 

Over the next couple of weeks, I'll outline ten key stages in the evolution of one very intelligent design: the modern sport bike.

Key advance #1: The Rover 'safety bicycle'

This early Rover bicycle still has an oversized front wheel somewhat reminiscent of a Penny Farthing, but it's lower seat height made it far less intimidating to mount. There's still a lesson here for motorcycle manufacturers that want to appeal to new riders.
The first motorcycles were all essentially bicycles to which a small auxiliary motor was fitted. Thus, for motorcycles to become practical, bicycles first had to become safe to ride. That was definitely not the case when the only bicycles were “penny farthings” with enormous front wheels – they were hard to get on and pedal and even worse, when riders fell, they crashed to the ground from seats as much as six feet high.

In the 1880s, the first bicycles with two small wheels, a low seat, and chain drive appeared. This basic design came to be known as the “safety frame” and was patented by the Rover bicycle company.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Driven to distraction

According to the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis and the scientific journal published by the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society, cell phone distraction causes about 2,600 deaths every year in the U.S. After Al Quaeda caused that many innocent U.S. citizens to die, we bombed two countries. I guess killing us one or two at a time doesn’t count.(Yes, I'm aware that the real irony in this photo is that if Osama bin Laden had only known that Wall Street itself was in fact planning a far bigger assault on American values - one that would result in the near collapse of the U.S. economy in 2008, he would never have authorized this attack.)
I note that the cell phone lobby has been buzzing up a team of New Hampshire students that invented a sensor-laden car steering wheel that, in theory, could reduce texting while driving. Their steering wheel may in fact be a good thing, but any time lobbyists push something, I'm suspicious.

We have, I guess, as a society reached some kind of consensus that texting while driving is beyond stupid. And in truth, some in the cell phone industry have decided this is a battle not worth fighting. But not all in the industry has; there are those who, state-by-state, are suggesting that we should lump texting-while-driving in with many other potential distractions, such as eating while driving, in the hopes that legislators will, ahem, table the issue altogether. While I think we've reached a point where most people disavow texting while driving, unfortunately 75% of all drivers regularly talk on their phones while driving.

Why is this a motorcyclists' issue? It selectively impacts motorcyclists because we are something like 35 times more likely to be killed and injured in two-vehicle accidents than are car drivers. (And we hardly ever do it ourselves, so for once we can point the finger. Lots of motorcyclists are killed by speeding car drivers, but since we speed more than they do, whining about that won't get us much sympathy.) 

Seriously, what pisses me off is that instead of launching a cruise-missile attack on Nokia's, or T-Mobile's headquarters, we respond to thousands of unwarranted deaths with what amounts to a $20 fine for sneaking box cutters onto commercial aircraft, and a few PSA ads about the safe use of sharp implements...

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Epic battles: Hailwood vs. Agostini, 1966 & '67 GP seasons

Honda desperately wanted to wrest the 500cc Grand Prix championship from MV Agusta. The Japanese company already had a powerful motor but couldn’t seem to make a suitable chassis for it. Moreover, its first foray into Formula One car racing was stretching the engineering department thin. Rather than attempt to build an all-new bike, Honda poached MV’s star rider: Mike Hailwood. MV let Hailwood go and promoted their “junior” rider, Giacomo Agostini, who had spent 1965 as Mike’s understudy.

Mike’s smooth style allowed him to ride bikes that bucked and slid underneath him. He wasn’t a complainer, either. He’d ride the wheels off anything he was given. He managed to win three races on the Honda 500 in ’66 and five races in ’67. (Including the Senior TT, as shown in this video; a win that was made easier by Ago's DNF.) But for the first time, even 'Mike the Bike' couldn’t make winning look easy. He used to climb off the Honda with his hands blistered and bleeding.

By contrast, Ago lacked Mike’s raw talent but was a master of bike set-up. Mike won a few battles but Ago won the wars, taking the 500cc title in both years before Honda withdrew from Grands Prix in frustration.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Epic Battles: Spencer vs. Roberts, 1983 GP season

Between them, Fast Freddie and King Kenny won every race that year. In the penultimate round, in Sweden, Roberts led going into the second-to-final turn. He left his braking to the absolute last moment but Spencer still dove up the inside to pass. Spencer had intentionally carried too much speed into the turn and the two riders bumped as Spencer pushed them both onto the grass at high speed. Spencer won and Roberts is still angry about it to this day.

Watching this video clip (which sadly didn't have a camera angle on 'the pass') you can't blame Roberts for being angry. The Armco barriers were never far away at the gritty Anderstorp circuit. All Spencer had to do win Honda’s first 500cc world championship was finish right behind Roberts in the final race. Roberts won that one but Spencer took the title. Roberts then retired from competition and became a team manager.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Banned in Backmarker: Throwing them in the deep end

A few years ago, when the Red Bull Rookies Cup started up, I wrote one of the few Backmarker columns that was flat rejected by the (then) host site. I chafed when Toriano Wilson was killed the next season. I was reminded of this virtually unpublished opinion piece last summer after the tragic death of Peter Lenz, but didn't post it then, because I didn't want to pile anything on his parents' grief.
In an unguarded moment last season, Kevin Schwantz told me, "I've seen some young kids who start racing for the wrong reasons; they've got parents pushing them into it."

Now the first RBRC test of 2011 is only a few weeks away, and this still needs to be said...

Throwing them in the deep end

When I was nine or ten years old, growing up in Switzerland, I had a phys-ed teacher named Mr. Knöpfl (spelling approximate, rhymes with “’kin’awful.”)

I was scrawny and unathletic. Depending on your point of view, I was also plain lazy or a prematurely jaded realist; I knew I was going to be picked last and lose first in any activity from dodgeball to high jump, so putting in an effort or getting emotionally involved was just stupid. You might imagine that Mr. Knöpfl’s class was one of the ones that I was glad to escape from every summer.

Except that there was no escaping Mr. Knöpfl.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Epic battles: Roberts vs. his own bike, 1975 Indy Mile

Kenny Roberts had been frustrated that his YamahaXS650-based flat tracker was nowhere near as fast on mile tracks as the Harleys. Then Kel Carruthers stuffed a four-cylinder TZ750 road racing motor in a flat track frame. The bike had far too much power even for Roberts. Carruthers had to rig it with a “kill switch” that shut off one of the cylinders, or it would spin the rear tire all the way down the straightaways. Still, the one time Roberts rode it, he won on it.

That was at the 1975 Indy Mile. After wrestling with it the entire race, Roberts somehow found traction coming off the very last turn. The bike shot down the track and Roberts passed a shocked Jay Springsteen a few feet before the finish line. After the race, he blurted, “They don’t pay me enough to ride that thing!” He needn’t have worried, the AMA soon banned it.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Epic battles: Roberts vs. Sheene, 1979 500GP season

Kenny Roberts took the 500cc world championship from Barry Sheene in his first season in Grand Prix racing. He was the favorite to repeat as winner the next year but was badly injured in a preseason testing crash and missed the first round.

Sheene won that first race and felt confident of the season ahead but against all odds, Roberts came back to win the second round. For the rest of the season, Roberts battled the lingering effect of his injury while Sheene suffered from a few mechanical problems. With two races to go, the championship battle moved to Silverstone. That British Grand Prix was one of the best races ever. Once Roberts and Sheene had got past early leader Will Hartog, they traded the lead almost every lap. Roberts won by a fraction of a second and won the overall championship that year, thoroughly demoralizing Sheene.

Watching this marvelous YouTube clip (was it pulled from a BBC broadcast?) I'm struck by the presence of two other interesting footnotes to this race. Note the presence on the grid of a bike that's actually part of the film 'Silver Dream Racer' and of two Honda NR500 oval-piston four-strokes. None of them had much luck in the race. Roger Marshall, riding the Silver Dream for actor/pop star David Essex had a problem with his fuel cap. Mick Grant crashed his NR500 when it leaked oil onto his rear tire in the first lap. Katayama pulled off the course when the second Honda started missing, then lost its front brake.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Epic battles: Edwards vs Bayliss – Imola, 2002

Troy Bayliss had opened up an early-season lead but Colin Edwards battled back with several straight wins to lead the series by a single point before the final races at Imola. Fittingly, it is said the Imola track is built on the site of an ancient Roman chariot track.

Bayliss, especially, arrived in San Marino in “win or crash” mode, since a win could mean the championship while even if he crashed, he could finish no lower than second overall. Edwards won the first race, which will go down in history as one of the closest and hardest fought races of all time. That meant that he could win the championship by safely staying behind Bayliss in the second race. He earned the respect of racing fans around the world by risking everything to win that race, too.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

A different kind of 'dresser' emerges in Milwaukee...

Last summer, I visited the Harley-Davidson Museum in Milwaukee. One of the staff told me that they'd recently had a VIP visitor – Arthur H. Davidson, the ninety-something year-old son of company founder Arthur Davidson – who regaled the curators with a story that his father and mother had been almost exactly the same size. In fact, Arthur Davidson fit perfectly into her clothes. In fact, he wore her clothes to parties, where he sat on men's laps, flirted, and kissed them on the cheek...

Arthur Davidson (far left) at Cedar Lake, WI

“Times were different back then,” the museum guy chuckled. “Can you imagine a modern industrialist doing that?” Actually, what I can't imagine is Harley-Davidson's customers wrapping their heads around it. Talk about going viral on YouTube.

Suffice it to say that, while the museum has a room devoted to all of the different Harley motors, I don't expect a room devoted to the Davidson trannies any time soon.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Trivia: Epic battles - Lawson, Schwantz, and Rainey - 1989 500GP season

The 1989 season featured the most talent-laden 500cc grids of the two-stroke era -- and the pre-'big bang' 500 motors were too much for tires and chassis to handle, setting the stage for some truly epic battles. In an era when men were men, Wayne Rainey, Eddie Lawson and Kevin Schwantz were all at the height of their powers. Mick Doohan was an impressive rookie and even though Wayne Gardner was thinking of retiring, he could still win on his day. Randy Mamola was in the mix – perhaps the most talented rider who never won a world championship. Even Freddie Spencer made a comeback attempt that year.

This video clip of the Suzuka (opening) round of the '89 season really captures the feel of that season. Schwantz and Rainey immediately reprised their fierce battles from the AMA Superbike series. Early in this clip, Kevin slams the door on Wayne and I swear that in spite of being swathed in helmet and leathers, even on this low-res video, you can still see Wayne get mad!
Schwantz won the most races that year but Lawson once again proved that his “Steady Eddie” nickname was well-chosen. His consistency earned him his fourth and final world championship.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Trivia: Great rivalries and epic battles

The history of motorcycle racing is the history of great rivals. For the next week or so, I'll post notes on memorable battles between worthy opponents, either in a single race or over a season. But I'll begin with a battle between a lone rider, a race course, and his own fate...

David Jefferies’ fastest lap of the Isle of Man 

After the death of Joey Dunlop in 2000, David Jefferies assumed the mantle of “greatest living TT rider.” Where Dunlop had always been fast, he hadn’t always looked fast since he rode with a very tidy and economical style. Jefferies was... different. The big man put so much physical effort into riding that his mechanics had to replace his bikes’ footrest hangers after each practice session – he bent them that badly when he was weighting the pegs! That made watching “DJ” memorable – and frightening. He set the outright lap record for the TT course during the 2002 Senior TT, at an average speed of 127.29 miles an hour.

I was on the course myself, in practice, when this 2002 on-board video was shot...
Eerily, at about the 1:50 mark of this video shot during a 2002 practice session, DJ describes one corner as really scary. The next spring, he was killed at that spot.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Best of Backmarker: Revisiting Ben Roethlisberger's 2006 motorcycle crash

Last Saturday afternoon, I stopped for a beer in a local bar while Ravens-Steelers was going down. Judging from his performance, Roethlisberger certainly recovered from his serious motorcycle crash a few years back. Pittsburgh started the second half down by two touchdowns, and the Ravens' defense was making the Steelers' O-line look pretty rusty. Then Roethlisberger took over. That recovery, of course, was not necessarily the best outcome for American womanhood, since he seems to celebrate with sexual assault. 

Let's go back to revisit the circumstances of his high-profile wipeout. It was those, uh, 'heady' days of Summer, 2006 and bike sales were at an all-time high. A few days of bad press couldn't dampen consumers' enthusiasm...

It was the summer of 2006, and you couldn't spell 'Roethlisberger' without E-R...

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Trivia: Motorcycling's tenth decade - 1990-’99 - Renaissance

Massimo Tamburini created his masterpiece, the iconic Ducati 916, just as the Cagiva Group ran out of money in the early '90s. While still finicky to maintain, the 916's fit and finish was a far cry from the first desmo twins, which were pretty crude. In a test of the Ducati 750GT, one U.S. magazine noted that there was a large fly trapped in the gas tank's fiberglass gelcoat. TPG stepped in to acquire the Ducati brand with perfect timing - thanks to designs like this, the company went from being a niche marque that appealed only to gearheads, to a global luxury brand.

Motorcycle sales peaked in the early 70s when the baby boomers were reckless teens and twentysomethings. The late 70s and 80s saw a long decline that finally reversed itself when the ‘boomers hit their mid-life crises. With a flood of money pouring into both domestic and import dealerships, there was a demand for bigger and more comfortable cruisers as well as faster and more exotic sport bikes.

Harley-Davidson sales increased 400% between ’90 and ’99. The resurgent market came too late for Italy’s Cagiva company, which found itself in a cash crunch. The private investment firm Texas Pacific Group took a controlling interest in Cagiva’s famous Ducati line and turned it into one of the world’s most recognized luxury brands. TPG saved a great company, allowing it to give us some of the most beautiful bikes ever made. In 2005, they took it public at huge profit. As Gordon Gecko said, “Greed is good.”

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Trivia: Motorcycling's ninth decade - 1980-'89 - The GSX-R prompts Kevin Cameron to wonder, "Where do we go from here?"

The modern superbike originated with the 100-horsepower Suzuki GSX-R750 in 1985 (arriving in the U.S. market a year later.) How stunning was it? The Honda RC30 may have had gear-driven cams, but the “Gixxer” put genuine racetrack performance under anyone with $4,500 to spend - about half the price of Honda's V-4. The GSX-R weighed just 388 pounds – two pounds less than the minimum weight specified in the rules for the AMA’s Superbike class. It was as addictive as cocaine and, in the wrong hands, about as destructive a habit.

I still remember the first time I saw and heard one at full chat. I was walking north on fifth street, in Calgary, where it passes under the railway tracks. Some hooligan, seeing a couple of hundred yards of open street with no chance of being observed by the cops whacked open the throttle. The bike made a sound I'd previously heard at GP races. The hair stood up on the back of my neck.  

When Cycle World snuck one down from Canada, Kevin Cameron wondered where the industry could possibly go next. Where it went was - the next year - to 1100cc. How times change... A couple of years ago, a late-'80s GSX-R1100 showed up at a Streets of Willow track day. Looking at it, I thought, "Wow, I'd love to throw a set of saddlebags on that thing. It'd make a stylin' sport-tourer."

Friday, January 14, 2011

Trivia: Motorcycling's eighth decade - 1970-'79 - the Japanese invasion gets reinforcements

Throughout this decade Yamaha, Suzuki, and Kawasaki all established themselves as serious rivals to Honda – to the chagrin of Harley-Davidson (which lobbied hard for protective tariffs) and to the ultimate demise of the entire British motorcycle industry.
The iconic ‘70s muscle bike was the Kawasaki Z1. The company had a 750cc four-cylinder bike in development when Honda unveiled the CB750 in ‘68. So they went back to the drawing board and created the 903cc Z1. It reached the market five years later. The bike was developed for the U.S. market and - under the code-name 'New York Steak' - it was extensively tested here (Yvon Duhamel handled speed/endurance test runs at, if memory serves, Talladega.) The dual-overhead cam motor made an honest 80+ hp and propelled the bike to 130mph. More to the point, it started selling faster than the Honda CB750, too.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Chip Yates walks the walk; Honda launches a category killer...

Chip Yates has been a bit of a lightning rod in the EV-motorcycle world. He's a skilled and relentless self-promoter – which, depending on how that strikes you, might mean that he's got what it takes to make it; attracting media attention and investment are prerequisites to shifting paradigms. Or, it might make you skeptical.

Does this tail-section make my bike look fat? I hope not, because by the time it was raced at Fontana last weekend, it got even bigger. This photo, from late last year, shows the Christini-derived front-wheel KERS system - not used in the races.
I admit that I've been in the latter camp. But I also have to admit that I was truly impressed when he took his 'SWIGZ electric superbike' to Fontana last weekend and raced it somewhat successfully against ICE bikes in a couple of WERA twins races.

In his typically bombastic style, Chip's “put the ICE bikes on notice.” OK, maybe. Later. Much later.

To lap at sportbike pace for ten minutes, the nearly 600-pound SWIGZ was laden with 180 pounds of batteries. Some of that mass was located in a 'top box' that made him look like the world's fastest courier. If the race distance had been doubled to 12 laps from six, the ICE bikes on the grid would have had to add another gallon of gas, but the SWIGZ would need to add... about another 180 pounds of batteries. That might change when and if his front-wheel KERS system lives up to its hype. (In a post-race email, Yates wrote that, "We removed the front wheel KERS system to save a few pounds of weight since we decided to go racing in WERA, and our battery pack is sufficient to race for their 6-lap distances." Again, count me among the skeptics; I think a recovery of 15% of the energy expended to accelerate the bike is feasible, but Yates claims he can recover far more. If he can, why not add a few pounds in the form of the KERS system and lose 50 or 60 pounds of battery?)

But in the end, that's quibbling. What counts is...

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Trivia: Motorcycling's seventh decade - 1960-'69 - Meeting the nicest people...

In ’62, American Honda sold 40,000 motorcycles through its 750-dealer network. When management set a target of 200,000 units the following year, Honda’s ad agency, Grey, knew they had their work cut out for them.
Grey’s creative types proposed a set of print ads showing students, women and couples – not the “typical” motorcyclists – on Honda’s 50cc step-through Cub. The ads proclaimed, “You meet the nicest people on a Honda”. In 1964 Grey produced a “nicest people” TV ad that ran during the Academy Awards.
The campaign not only launched Honda in the U.S. market, it redeemed the image of motorcycling as a whole.
Try as I might, I can't find that first, 'nicest people' TV ad anywhere. If anyone can get their hands on a digitized version, please post it to YouTube. Honda continued to play on those general themes into the '70s, with this commercial starring a pre-Scientology John Travolta...

...and this one in which riding god Malcolm Smith portrays a friendly (but not too friendly!) priest.

These commercials are, to be sure, the products of a different time. But where's the OEM that will step up again in this dark hour for the industry, with a new-rider campaign anywhere near as successful as 'nicest people'?

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Trivia: Motorcycling's sixth decade - 1950-'59 - "What are you rebelling against?" "What have you got?"

After the war, G.I.s came home with ready cash, an appreciation for the motorcycles they’d seen “over there” and – shall we say – a heightened sense of what constituted excitement. In 1947 this led to the so-called “Hollister motorcycle riot”. That event received national prominence when a beefy drunk, slumped on his motorcycle, was pictured in Life magazine.
In 1954, the reputation of motorcyclists was sealed by The Wild One, a film based on Hollister and starring Marlon Brando as a disaffected rebel.
Ironically, in the late ‘40s the Hells Angels were still an AMA-sanctioned club that organized races and rallies. But by the time the ‘50s drew to a close the ‘Angels were outlaws who made Brando’s “Johnny” seem like a schoolboy. It’s not clear if art imitated life, or if life imitated art.
I've written about the real history of the Hollister riot at some length, and I'll eventually compile those essays into a 'Best of Backmarker' entry for this blog. But this oh-so-gay photo of a young Brando reminds me of a jibe that was edited out of a Backmarker entry a few years back. You see, in the summer of 2008, I caught a story in the LA Times about one of those Christian biker 'gangs' tangling with some Hells Angels. That prompted me to write...

I note that today’s LA Times reports “the Anaheim-based Christian motorcycle gang known as the Set Free Soldiers found itself in deeper trouble Wednesday when its leader and half a dozen members were arrested on suspicion of attempted murder.” Police charged the Christian bikers with attempted murder after a melée in a Newport Beach bar in which two Hells Angels were stabbed.
     In a way, this news almost makes me feel better about those so-called Christian bikers, who I always felt were just a bunch of posers. It seems at least some of them are genuine badasses. Plus the Times’ coverage goes a long way towards answering a question I’ve often pondered, which is, who would Jesus kill?

Monday, January 10, 2011

How's this for segue? I'm sure gullible investors drowned their sorrows, but this is ridiculous

It's been an up-and-down few months for the Segway corporation. I just saw a little clip of the Ford EN-V 'networked vehicle' concept, um, car. It was demo'd at CES in 'Vegas, under very controlled conditions admittedly, but it was almost cool in a sure-if-you-can-completely-change-the-existing-infrastructure kind of way.

That was a more upbeat story than the one that came out a few months ago, when the war profiteer who bought the Segway company from Dean Kamen and his contrite investors drowned while exploring his English country estate when – wait for it – he drove his Segway off an embankment and into a river. “Thank you, Charles Darwin,” I thought, while looking back through some old files in search of this Backmarker...

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Trivia: Motorcycling's fifth decade - 1940-'49 - you're in the army now

Allied Forces in North Africa reported that the shaft-drive Zundapps and BMWs used by the Wehrmacht (which were usually set up as sidecar outfits, with a driven third wheel) were incredibly tough and useful. Captured specimens were returned to Milwaukee, and Harley-Davidson developed a test batch of 1,000 XA-model opposed twins. By the time the bike was ready for prime time, it was clear that the Willys Jeep, at under 1,300 pounds(!) was not much heavier than a sidecar outfit, but it was more powerful and had a larger payload.

America’s belated entry into WWII kick-started Indian again and breathed new life into Harley, too. Both companies filled open-ended military procurement contracts for all the bikes they could make, at the standard cost-plus-10% rate. Harley alone sold over 90,000 45 cu. in. WL models.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Trivia: Motorcycling's fourth decade - 1930 to ‘39: Motorcycles cure depression, but not The Depression

Excelsior (which made fine big V-twins) and Henderson (known for smooth inline fours) both went bust in ’31.
Indian had been acquired by the wealthy E. Paul duPont but even his resources couldn’t prevent a precipitous drop in sales. The company had sold 40,000 machines to the Army alone in WWI, but shipped just 1,660 motorcycles in 1933. Indeed, Indian never really regained sound health.
Harley-Davidson managed to get through the depression on the strength of strong fleet sales. The Motor Company dominated the market for police motorcycles and introduced the 3-wheeled “Servicar” delivery vehicle in 1932. Harley even sold fan-cooled versions of its big V-twin engines for use as industrial powerplants.
One bright spot in this otherwise, well, depressing period was the adoption of The Motorcyclist as the official magazine of the American Motorcyclist Association. The magazine, which was already well established, still exists today. Among motorcycle magazines, only the German monthly “Das Motorrad” has been published longer.
Jay Leno shows two local cops what a state-of-the-art police bike looked like in 1931. This is the Henderson I rode; Jay rode the blue Henderson four at lower right. No, they did not follow us to the garage to write a ticket. (That said, Leno does have the dubious honor of being the driver of the oldest vehicle ever stopped for speeding in California.)

Friday, January 7, 2011

Trivia: Motorcycling's third decade - 1920 to '29: The motorcycle goes upmarket

The roar in “Roaring Twenties” was the sound of an overheated stock market, not motorcycles. However, it was a great decade for hundreds of now-vanished manufacturers.
George Brough was a motorcycle maker who really captured the spirit of the times. His Brough Superior models were “the Rolls-Royce of motorcycles” and that wasn’t an empty boast – the bikes were so well made that when Charles Rolls and William Royce examined one of them, they gave Brough permission to use their names in his advertising.
Most Brough Superiors were sold with engines outsourced from James A. Prestwich. Those “JAP” motors were supplied to many other builders, but Brough’s came in special tunings that allowed him to guarantee that his SS100 model would really go 100 miles an hour. Each of Brough’s machines was specially fitted to its owner, like a custom suit. They were fast, comfortable and built to last, so it’s not surprising they remain sought after to this day.
Mister, we could use a man like T.E. Lawrence again... 'Lawrence of Arabia' met his demise when he crashed one of the several Brough Superiors that he owned.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Hachette-Filipacchi hands ex-racer Andy Leisner a set of jumper cables

The last year has been an eventful one at Cycle World Magazine. While CW's readers may not have noticed wholesale changes in the magazine this year, there were certainly some big changes in the corner offices down in Newport Beach. David Edwards, the long-time Editor-in-Chief, and Larry Little, the Publisher were replaced, and CW's parent company (the giant French conglomerate Hachette-Filipacchi) transferred responsibility for the magazine to a division called Jumpstart Automotive Group.

Hachette obviously felt that it was time to, ah, jump-start Cycle World. Mark Hoyer, one of the editors who worked under Edwards, moved into that chair. The publisher's position was redefined, and there's not, technically, a publisher there any more. But those duties and more were assigned to Andy Leisner. It will be up to him to make this venerable 'old media' brand relevant in a new-media world.

At the end of the year, at a time when we're all prone to looking back and looking forward, I thought it would be interesting to talk to Andy about his job and the path that led him to it, and get his take on the future this grand old title...

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Trivia: Motorcycling's second decade - 1910 to 1919: Scott shows that a motorcycle can be more than a bicycle with an auxiliary motor

Alfred Angus Scott was the holder of more than sixty patents. His eponymous motorcycles were among the first to feature kick-starters, chain drives, and multi-speed gearboxes. He usually used simple two-stroke motors that were water-cooled – about 60 years before such cooling was “pioneered” by Suzuki and introduced with great fanfare on the GT 750. The bike illustrated is from the mid-'20s, but Scott's basic layout and technology hardly changed over the decades.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Trivia: Motorcycling's first decade - 1900 to 1909

It’s convenient for motorcycle historians that the history (so far) of the motorcycle coincides almost exactly with that of the Twentieth Century. The title “the first motorcycle” is usually awarded to a machine built by Gottlieb Daimler and William Maybach in 1885. But their contraption could also be described as the first car. It had two ungainly wooden wagon wheels fore and aft, with smaller stabilizing wheels off to the sides.
The operator straddled it like a motorcycle, but it didn't lean to turn. It's your call whether this is the first motorcycle, or the first car, or just some precursor to both.
Hildebrand and Wolfmuller produced the first commercially viable motorcycle in 1894. This was also the first time the word “motorrad” (German for motorcycle) was used. Any modern motorcyclist would immediately recognize it as such: it had a gravity-feed fuel tank mounted above an internal-combustion motor; it rolled on air-filled rubber tires; the rider controlled it by means of a twistgrip and levers on a handlebar.
Power was transmitted to the rear wheel by steel rods, connected directly to the crankshaft. The rods were assisted on the return stroke by rubber bands! Despite its impressive displacement of 1488cc, Heinrich Hildebrand’s motor only produced about 2.5 horsepower. It’s not surprising that for the next twenty years or so, most motorcycles also had bicycle pedals, for assistance on hills or when extra oomph was required to pass a horse that was feeling his oats.
It was a rare occurrence when a Hildebrand & Wolfmuller 'motorrad' came up for auction last year in England. It's striking that another one will be offered by Bonham's in Las Vegas, tomorrow! If you're planning to attend, please let me know what it sells for, and what condition it was in.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Best of Backmarker: The day King Kenny shouted, “Off with his head!”

Kenny Roberts launched his own team in 1997, with a lot of vainglorious talk that by borrowing technology, staff, and management techniques from the Formula 1 car-racing world, he'd kick the Japanese OEMs' butts. That never happened. There's no dishonor in that; it turns out that building a competitive MotoGP bike is really, really hard. But what bugged me was that Roberts, who brooked no excuses from his riders, always had an excuse for his team's poor performance, and the things he complained about were things that should have been his responsibility as team principal.

This essay first appeared late in the 2005 MotoGP season. KTM (Roberts' engine sponsor/supplier) had lost confidence in Kenny's team and reneged on its contract. Roberts' team failed to make the grid for several races, and it seemed that Team Roberts had reached its nadir.

Herewith, from September, 2005...
The South Park Grand Prix

The absence of Kenny Roberts’ eponymous race team was duly noted at Motegi last weekend. Rumors swirled around a possible Honda motor deal for next year. What have they got over there, a friggin’ RC211V assembly line? While they’re at it, Big Red should supply Kawasaki’s and Suzuki’s MotoGP teams, too.

That’ll teach Pavel Blata for horning in on Soichiro Honda’s monkey-bike monopoly. But seriously—and this is conjecture based on basic human nature, not any particular insight into Roberts Sr.—I don’t see a happy Roberts-Honda marriage. They both need to wear the daddy pants, and there’s only ever one pair...