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.)

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