Monday, July 30, 2012

Monday morning crew chief -- The rap(p) on CRTs, etc.

Attack got some good PR in the weeks leading up to their first-of-two wild card/CRT entries. But it ended in disappointment as Rapp missed the 107% cutoff (of pole time) and failed to qualify for the race.

Rapp would'a needed to find another half-second or so to make the grid. Failing to qualify, under the circumstances, shouldn't have surprised anyone. Attack didn't have their bike together nearly soon enough. Remember the first few winter tests of the full-time CRT machines, in Spain? They sucked. That's the development stage that Attack's at right now. To put it in perspective, Martin Cardenas on his 600 was as close to Steve Rapp as Steve Rapp was to the slowest rider who made the MotoGP grid.

I want to believe that the Attack bike is capable of running with, if not the big dogs of MotoGP, at least the lap(ped) dogs. But getting the bike up to speed doesn't just take track time. To really evaluate your bike and improve it, you need to be on the track with other bikes and riders as fast as you are.

There's an official AMA Superbike test day the week before the Indy MotoGP event. I don't have a MotoGP rule book, so I'm not sure what the MotoGP rules have to say about wild card riders practicing on the circuit in the weeks leading up to the race. If Attack's allowed to practice on the circuit along with the AMA Superbikes, it would be nice if the AMA invited them to the test.

It was interesting to see just where the CRT bikes are vis-a-vis the American-rules Superbikes. When the current U.S. rules package was defined, there was a lot of complaining that the bikes were 'dumbed down'. And yet, the fastest three Superbike qualifiers were in the 1:24s, as were the slowest three MotoGP qualifiers. Hayes' Superbike race-winning average speed (151 kph) was about the same as the slowest CRT finisher's.

I realize it's not an apples-to-apples comparison. The fastest U.S. riders all have a lot more seat time at Laguna Seca than those CRT riders (who, for all I know were seeing it for the first time.) It's not a particularly easy track to learn. It's slow and technical; on a faster track like Philip Island, I imagine the CRT bikes would have stretched their legs a bit more. And of course they're on different tires.

But still. It's clear that in qualifying trim, the CRT bikes are not much faster than AMA Pro Racing's Superbikes. They're not any faster than World Superbike machines, even though CRT rules are quite a bit more flexible than SBK rules, and a lot more flexible than U.S. rules.

The lesson in this is not that CRT bikes are crap (no matter what Colin Edwards says.) The lesson is that production (and production-based) bikes are so good that performance is barely rules-limited.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

A note from the Dept. of Gone But Not Forgotten

I guess I should take a month off more often, because with 10% of the month remaining, July 2012 has been the #2 all-time month here on

While on the subject of 'gone but not forgotten', I noticed a slightly out of date friend suggestion the last time I logged onto Facebook...

Thursday, July 26, 2012

One question Nobby Clark/Hall of Fame voters should ask: WWMHD?

I'm not actually sure when the voting opens or closes on the special supplementary ballot the AMA will hold, to determine whether Nobby Clark will get into the AMA Hall of Fame in the end (or, just get it in the end.)

But when ballots arrive, the voters (who include all living Hall of Fame members) need ask themselves only one question: What would Mike Hailwood do?

Mike "The Bike" Hailwood. Greatest motorcycle racer of all time. (Sorry Vale, you'll get consideration when you come back years after your GP career has ended, and win a TT.) Nobby Clark's best -- and favorite -- rider. Awarded the George Medal, Britain's highest civilian award for bravery, for assisting in the rescue of F1 driver Clay Regazzoni, from a fiery wreck in the South African GP. What would Mike Hailwood do? He would vote for Nobby.

Friday, July 20, 2012

A conversation with Nobby Clark

Last night, vacation or not, a Classic Bike column deadline loomed. Not for the first time the AMA bailed me out by providing column fodder. I write of the 'Nobby Clark Affair,' of course.
The upside was, the AMA'd given me plenty to write about. The downside was, I pretty much had to call Nobby to discuss it. (Email was out of the question, as he doesn't own a computer.) 
I don't know Nobby; we've met, over the years, at a couple of motorcycle events where I figured him as a thin, soft-spoken guy with the remains of a British-empire accent; he was born in Rhodesia.
At the best of times I've got a bit of telephone anxiety, and I half expected him to tell me to fuck off; after all, I helped stir up memories of his criminal guilty plea (though in my defense, I only abetted Michael Gougis at Still, I had no idea whether I'd be bothering him or, would he want to talk?
He did. I caught him at his home, in the village of Dover Plains, which is about 90 miles north of New York City, near the border with Connecticut. This post is based on my notes of our conversation.
As it happened, I reached Nobby right after I got an email from the AMA announcing they would hold a special, supplemental ballot (in which all living Hall of Fame members would be given a vote) to determine whether Nobby should be inducted, as originally announced.

Nobby didn't seem particularly elated by that news, but there was more resignation than anger in his voice when he told me, "I think it's damned bad organization on their [the AMA's] part. The left hand doesn't know what the right hand's doing. I got a letter telling me that I was going to be inducted, then six weeks later, I got a phone call telling me it's been rescinded. They didn't even write to apologize. I told them, 'No matter what you say, people won't believe you,' since the AMA's already got a bad reputation."
Nowadays, he works for a guy over in CT, who restores primo vintage sports cars. On weekends, he wrenches for a couple of good AHRMA racers, Alex McLean and Bob McKeever. I should say, that's what he had been doing; he lost most of the last year to cancer surgery and chemotherapy. He just finished the last series of injections. 
He's been getting calls about the Hall of Fame debacle from all over the world; Germany, France, Holland, New Zealand... It occurred to me that, strangely, I've not seen him quoted here in the U.S. [Paul Carruthers of Cycle News interviewed him, but I missed it.]
Long after his race-tuning career was over, Nobby was working as a mechanic in a garage in South Africa when he got a call one night at midnight. It was Rob Iannucci.

 "He asked me if I still remembered how to assemble a Honda 250-six, and told me he'd bring me to New York for a couple of weeks, to put his together. I thought, two weeks in New York would be good, but once I saw the parts I realized it was going to be more like six months." That was almost 20 years ago. 
I asked him for his side of the story of the events that led to him pleading guilty to stealing parts from Iannucci and Team Obsolete, and he sighed. "We'll still be here talking at midnight." It didn't take until midnight, but we did have a long conversation that he asked me not to detail. Suffice to say, after hearing Nobby's side, I feel I was on the money when I first wrote about it. Something like 90% of all U.S. criminal cases end in plea bargains, and there are innocent people who realize that admitting guilt is the easiest (or only) way to escape a costly and dysfunctional criminal-justice system.
He also eventually escaped Brooklyn, to the much quieter environs of Dover Plains. "It was like living in a zoo, but without the cages," he told me of New York City. "At least in the bush, you know that the animals are wild and you keep your distance from them, but  in the city, you never know which ones are going to attack."
At the end of our conversation, I had to ask him which, of the many champion riders he worked with, had been his favorite. "I'd have to say the best was Mike Hailwood," he told me. "He was the most versatile; he'd ride four different bikes in four different classes and win on all of them. Agostini couldn't do that, I don't think Kenny could have done it. Read could ride two or three bikes and do well, but Mike just had so much talent."
"He looked after you, too. If you had to work all night, he'd have someone come over from the hotel with coffee. The other guys just said, 'See you at practice tomorrow.' And after the race, he'd just ask, 'What are you drinking?' and then pick up the bar tab." Hailwood partied before the races, too, that was they way they did it back then, but Nobby told me that it never affected his riding. He said that Mike tried to win every race he was in, whether he had a bike capable of winning or not. I got the feeling that Nobby thought less of most modern riders, who will ride for safe points if they feel a win's not in the cards.
He's about to go back to work at the garage. "My energy level is up, my endurance is back up," he told me. "I've gained back about 40 pounds I lost in chemo." And now, it seems that neither cancer nor the AMA's internal politics will prevent him from being inducted into the Hall of Fame while he's alive.
I am sure a full, open vote will see him inducted. He may not be the most famous member of the 'Class of 2012' but he'll be the most talked-about at this year's ceremony. I almost want to attend, just to applaud when they call him up. When I asked him how he'd feel when he finally saw his plaque on the wall, he sounded happy. "They asked me if I had any memorabilia to display at the museum," he said. "I don't have much, really, but I do have a nearly perfect pair of Honda coveralls from the '60s. I guess I'll loan them those."
I've said, all along, that the right thing for the AMA to do -- regardless of how the Nobby Clark Affair really started -- the only right thing to do is induct Nobby into the Hall of Fame. By putting it to the largest possible vote, the AMA has tacitly admitted that it fucked up. And that's the first step to making things better. 
Thanks, AMA. You're doing the right thing now. Maybe we can move forward.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Hall of Fame, Part III

OK, maybe collectively we overreacted. I guess that's a danger in this new interwebbed world. There's not much time to interrupt a feedback loop.

And, it probably doesn't help that I'm a bit of a bomb-thrower.

But seriously, I've just re-read all of the press releases and editorials that have come out in the wake of the Nobby Clark Affair, and I still can't say that I've got a clear picture of what happened. I guess if I wanted to try to get one, I'd try to chart out some sort of concordance between Dean Adams' description of what he saw from inside the nomination procedure, and the AMA Hall of Fame's report of its own 'investigation' into what happened. I'd also very much like to ask Nobby Clark when he was contacted by the AMA, and what he was told.

At least, that's what I'd do if, a.) I wasn't supposed to be on vacation, and b.) Anyone paid me enough to actually give a shit.

Given the reality of my situation as, at best, a noisy outsider, I'd rather just say this: If anyone wants to argue that I was all wrong and that Clark's debacle with Rob Iannucci, back in the early '90s, had nothing to do with the Hall of Fame's PR disaster, we can just agree on that and move on to the next topic.

The next topic is that even most flattering interpretation of events suggests that the procedure was overly complicated, bogged down in rules, committees, and subcommittees, with members pushing their own agendas, supported by an incompetent staff.

I still think that once the announcement had been made, Clark should have been inducted. No one -- at least no one outside the committee -- would have noticed that there seemed to be one extra guy in the Class of '12.

But the larger issue here is, what the fuck?.. If they can turn even something as anodyne as Hall of Fame inductions into an occasion for internecine bickering and recriminations, then layer in bureaucratic incompetence, and develop it into a full-blown public fiasco, maybe it's time to wonder whose interests the AMA is even trying to serve, besides their own.

Everything ends. Sometimes it implodes, sometimes it peters out, but eventually, it always ends. It's not something we necessarily need to fight. It's part of every natural process, and when it ends, it makes room for something that will replace it, if necessary

I'm not saying we don't need the Hall of Fame. I think that Hall, in fact, is a great thing. It would be just as great, maybe greater, at the Barber Museum. I'm saying, maybe we don't need the AMA.

Now, I'm back on vacation.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Which Hall of Fame member took the nuclear option over the Nobby Clark fiasco?

I'm still on vacation, but I feel compelled to quote this letter, from a current Hall of Fame member, who has instructed the AMA to remove him from the Hall, to protest the AMA's handling of 'the Nobby Clark affair.'

To Whom It May Concern:

This letter and the enclosed medal commemorating my induction comprise my immediate resignation from the Motorcycle Hall of Fame.  I expect my name and picture to be removed without delay from all Hall of Fame materials and representations.  

I take this action in response to the Hall of Fame’s unconscionable rescinding of the nomination of Nobby Clark, a motorcycling legend more than worthy of Hall of Fame membership.  I believe we Hall of Famers have a special stake in the integrity of the institution and its nominating process.  I have lost all faith in that process and, more importantly, in the individuals who apparently now control it.   

I am deeply suspicious of media speculation that Clark’s “criminal record” is somehow grounds for the withdrawal of his nomination but given the absence of any clear and official explanation from Hall of Fame officials, that apparently is the brush with which Nobby is to be tarred.  This raises a couple obvious questions:  What changed in the short time between the announcement and the rescinding of Clark's nomination and why would Clark's "criminal record" be grounds for a blackball when that clearly was not an issue for a number of previous inductees who also have criminal records.   

I suspect the answers to these questions, if they were truly known, would do nothing to restore my faith in the integrity of the institution but in the end my resignation does not turn on those answers.  Instead it is based on a simple and inescapable conclusion; given everything Nobby Clark has accomplished in this sport, if he doesn’t belong in the Motorcycle Hall of Fame then I sure as hell shouldn’t be in there.


Dave Despain


The dominoes continue to fall... UPDATE Holy shit, Dick Mann's quit now, too, with a similar letter.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

100k views. Thanks

Some time today, one of you will account for the 100,000th page view, here at I guess that's small potatoes for the commercial web sites that aspire to replace the motorcycle magazines, but it's still a lot of visits for a private blog.

Writers write for all kinds of reasons. Some seek fame; the really delusional ones, fortune. But mainly, writers write in order to be read. I'm really gratified that people have followed a link somewhere, ended up at and at least briefly lingered on some post I wrote a hundred thousand times.

One thing I learned when I started blogging on the old RoadRacerX web site was that it was hard to predict which posts would really get traction with readers. Sometimes, I'd submit one and think, "Phew, that's a stinker, but it's Wednesday night and I've got nothing else to submit," and the post would generate all kinds of positive email. Other times, I'd polish something I thought was a real gem, and get no feedback at all; I might as well have put a message in a bottle.

After the demise of Road Racer X (both magazine and web site) I started doing this on my own. Gradually, I stopped trying to hit a regular Thursday deadline; I now write whenever I'm moved to do so. Sometimes it's daily, sometimes it's weakly. And with no one to ride herd on me, the posts are probably a little wilder. I still can't believe that people took that 'Stoner in a league of his own' story seriously! At least one post lost me a friend. And any month now I expect to apply for a media pass at some event only to be told I've been blacklisted. (Maybe that should be a goal.)

Some of the most-read posts were bittersweet for me, notably 'Make Noise for Marco Sunday.' I wish I'd never had that to write about.

I guess the most gratifying aspect of all this is that about 1% of you don't just read a few posts, you click over and buy a copy of Riding Man, too. Effectively, that pays (just) enough that Mary lets me keep devoting time to this project.

Anyway, thanks for reading. I'll be back from my vacation any day, and (ir)regular posts will resume. Lots of interesting things have been happening to me, motorcycle-wise, and I've been meeting some real characters. So check back soon.

Thanks again,

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Summer holiday

For the first time in years, I'll be taking a planned vacation for the next 2-3 weeks. Mary and I are spending the first week at a comedy improv immersion at Second City, in Chicago. We're going to be hanging out a little bit with Burt Richmond, a noted collector of motorcycles and micro-cars, so I'll accumulate a few stories for later, I'm sure.

Then, we'll drive straight from Chicago to Texas, because Mary's decided to adopt a stray dog named Chubbs (well, he was a stray, he's got a temporary home down there at this point.) I know what you're thinking: Aren't there stray dogs right here in Kansas City? Well, Mary picked Mr. Chubbs; anyone who has ever been able to make a side-by-side comparison of my wife and I can easily understand why I just do whatever she wants.

We'll drive back through Austin, so I guess there's a chance I'll see the new track there (but I'm not too sure they'll welcome a motorcycle journalist, considering all the fuss there's been over our on-again/off-again MotoGP status.)

I've found that the Blogger platform's not that compatible with the iPad I take on the road, so don't be surprised if posts are few and far between for the next few weeks. But please keep checking back, because I have a lot of interesting stories in development.

Friday, July 6, 2012

The season of politics is upon us

I've had politics on my mind all morning. It's part of the natural post-July 4th self-examination, multiplied because this is not only an election year, but the bicentennial of the War of 1812. That's the Tea Party's favorite war, because Washington was razed. Their only regret is that it was rebuilt.

I got an email from the AMA today, offering to help Backmarker's readers to decide how they should vote in November, in order to further the AMA's agenda.

No matter how desperately the AMA wishes it had the political clout of the NRA, I don't think the rise of single-issue voter blocs did the U.S. any good. All of the AMA's political projects -- whether they're legitimate civil-rights issues involving motorcycle-only checkpoints; semi-legitimate issues like ensuring a reasonable counter-balance to environmental protections, in order to preserve access for motorized recreation; or the knee-jerk opposition to helmet laws -- pale in comparison to the larger battle being waged between the Democrats and Republicans on central, philosophic issues that will determine the rate of the decline of American Empire.

And, frankly, even if the soul of America wasn't at stake, who would trust the AMA for voter guidance?

Admittedly the foregoing had little to do with motorcycles, but be warned that if you choose to read on -- from here down, it's all politics.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

"Nice bike." Or not...

Kansas City's forecast high one day last week was 111, and technically summer'd only just started. I guess I have to admit that there are a few days when I'd rather be in an air-conditioned cage than on my bike. But one upside to riding is that whenever you come to a traffic light at the end of an off-ramp, or stop at a major intersection these days, there's a homeless guy panhandling there, and they seem to ignore bikers. I guess it's an acknowledgement that it's a little harder for us to pull off gloves and find wallets in zippered pockets, and even if we want to help them out, the light will change first.
I was getting back to my slum the other day, and the homeless guy at my off ramp was holding a sign that he'd made from a piece of a cardboard box. The thing was, he was holding the side he'd written on against his body. So what I read, upside down, were the words, 'STORE IN A COOL PLACE'.
The guy didn't bother walking over to me, but he mouthed the words, 'nice bike' and gave me a grubby thumb-up. It's surprising how many people think that my grotty Hinkley Triumph -- arguably the world's least sexy bike -- is 'nice'.
One thing that fools people is the 40 years' worth of corrosion on my 12 year-old cases. The bike's first owner parked it about a mile from the ocean and left it sitting out in the open for seven years.

Last week at Costco, a black guy with natty dreads wanted to have a long conversation about my bike, and a few days before that a stylishly tattooed kid at a trendy coffee shop actually seemed to think it made me cool enough to talk to.
I find this really awkward, because I don't know how to reply to the comment, "Cool bike!"
I know they're saying that because they think it's a vintage bike, and not just a retro one. It would be rude, I think, to say, "Actually it's not cool at all; it's a motorcycle for dweebs," so instead, I just murmur a little embarrassed "Thanks," and hope they'll drop the subject. But if they don't drop the subject, the longer they talk about it the more I worry that at some moment they'll notice the disc brake or lack of a kickstarter -- or just the sheer bulk of the bike compared to a Meriden Bonneville -- and then they'll be embarrassed that they didn't immediately identify it as the mere facsimile of a cool bike. At that point, they'd think I was a wanker for basking in their misguided compliment while they waxed on.

The solution to this problem, of course, would be to actually make it cool. More and more of the new/old Triumphs are being used as raw material by builders like Richard Pollock, of Mule. See, if I was riding a bike like this, compliments would not embarrass me at all.

I'm told that motor's transformed by switching to better carbs, but solving the bike's terrible brakes and handling are trickier. I can't afford to do anything to it, and even if I could, it would never be as fast as a ten year-old Gixxer 750, even if I spent ten times what the Gixxer would cost me.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Derek and the Dominoes: Nobby Clark triggers a major WTF?

The AMA's recent press release rescinding Derek 'Nobby' Clark's accession into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame triggered so much forehead slapping amongst motorcyclists that it could have been confused for applause for the AMA's mysterious decision.

On Facebook, the early consensus was that whatever the cause of the confusion had been, that had resulted in Clark first being listed as one of this year's inductees and then having that honor rescinded before it was even given, the confusion would have been better swept under the rug. Most people said the AMA should just have given Clark the honor.

As usual, has a more detailed and informed perspective on the issue. Reading Dean Adams' email to Roadracing World on the Clark kerffufle won't really clarify much for you, if you're hoping to understand how the AMA actually makes decisions. But Michael Gougis' story (complete with a link to a mug shot!) does make clear why Clarke was removed from this year's Hall of Fame inductees; he was charged and pleaded guilty to theft of motorcycle parts from Rob Iannucci/Team Obsolete.

I first met Rob Iannucci in the mid-'90s, when he wrote a foreword for my book Classic Motorcycles. We went for dinner at some little Italian joint in New York, and I spent the evening listening to him recite a litany of perceived slights, mostly at his treatment at the hands of AHRMA officials. I remember him telling me about his falling out with Clark (I think Rob had brought Clark to Team Obsolete to rebuild his priceless 250-6.) While I've long forgotten most of the details of our conversation, I do remember that, at the time, I thought, "There's probably two sides to that story."

Rob seems to have mellowed a bit in recent years, but as AHRMA learned, he could be famously obstreperous, really held a grudge, and took a bare-knuckled approach to legal action. I didn't doubt that he could have been vindictive enough to press theft charges just to make an enemy's life miserable.

I suppose Clark really did steal some of Rob's stuff; that's the view of the courts, anyway. In the black-or-white legal world, people are either guilty of theft, or innocent. But in the world where we live, it's all shades of grey, and things aren't so certain. Lots of people plead 'guilty' without being guilty, just to get out of a legal situation. It's a little hard for me to understand, if Clark was really guilty of what must have been 'grand theft', that a few years later he was granted U.S. citizenship.

I'm sure there are more egregious miscreants in the Hall. But in hindsight, the AMA committee should have paid more attention to Clark's criminal record, and quietly deep-sixed his nomination. While no one questioned Clark's Hall-of-Fame-worthiness, it's not as if he'd be conspicuous by his absence from the Hall -- or that he himself ever expected the honor.

Clark is in his mid-70s now. As far as I know, he's still working as a mechanic. Over the years, I've seen him at a couple of motorcycle events, where other old men want to get close to him because he had been close to Mike Hailwood. But like so many people who have devoted most of their lives to motorcycle racing, he left the sport with little more than memories and his reputation. Whatever happened between him and Iannucci certainly damaged his reputation and the AMA's public debacle has brought it all up again.

It's demoralizing, the way the AMA seems determined to undermine motorcyclists' faith in our institutions.