Saturday, September 29, 2012

If you don't read my blog, read his

I'm often pretty critical of the whole 'Harley' thing, although anyone who knows me really well knows there are plenty of Harleys that are close to my heart, they're just not the ones ridden by guys in "If you can read this, the bitch fell off" T-shirts and German WWII-style non-DOT helmets. I've got no problem at all with the Harleys that my friends on the AMA Pro Racing flat track circuit ride, and enjoyed dragging my knee at Road America during the XR1200x launch a few years ago.

A little while ago, I was alerted to a blog called Bikes and Buddies. It's put up by a guy named Kevin Moore, who as far as I can tell is a Harley guy but probably doesn't own a 'bitch fell off' shirt. 

Seriously, if you like good motorcycle writing this is a must-read blog. I was suprised and even a little ashamed of myself that I didn't already know about a trove of motor-writing this good. The quality of the posts is high enough that he's only updating one or two times a month, so I signed up for an email alert when new stuff goes up. If I were you, I'd follow this link right now, and delve into it.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

If Lorenzo=Obama, and Pedrosa=Romney...

The MotoGP season -- and the Presidential election season -- end in early November. And while it seemed as if both could be close races early on, Lorenzo and Obama now seem to be pulling out leads that are, event by event, looking more and more unassailable (thanks in no small measure to a.) Hector Barbera, and b.) 'Anne Onymous', whoever she is.)

Neither the 2013 MotoGP #1 plate nor the next presidency of the United States are decided, however. Which leads me to this survey.

Imagine, if you will, that the 2012 election is a MotoGP race of, say, 28 laps. Check the box that indicates the relative positions of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney (respectively the first African-American and first Mormon riders in Grands Prix.)

If you don't think any of these options reflect the current situation, please feel free to present your own scenario in the Comments section. Submitting your email address is optional, but one person who checks the most popular box, and another who submits the most insightful and/or entertaining comment, will be contacted about a prize -- a copy of my book Riding Man.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Honda's 'RC213V for the road'

A few days ago, Honda announced that it would build a new V-four sportbike. Apparently, Mr. Ito alluded to the venerable RC30, which was sold in limited quantities from 1987-'90. People quickly dubbed this project an RC213V for the road.

Of course, unless Honda plans to release a bike with a $1,000,000 MSRP, it won't really be an RC213V for the road. And I doubt that it will really be analogous to the RC30, which was a true homologation special -- complete with gear-driven cams and magnesium valve covers -- built and sold so that Honda could race it in the World Superbike Championship. It's more likely that Honda's new V-four project is a way to extract value from its MotoGP marketing exercise.

But, the idea begs a couple of interesting questions. The philosophical question is, how loud would SBK competitors howl if Honda did build a road-going version of its MotoGP bike, and then homologated it for SBK? Recall that Aprilia's SBK rivals bitterly complained about the Noale firm moving its ill-fated MotoGP project over to SBK, and Aprilia has a fraction of Honda's ability to execute such a plan. Tranferring even some of the real RC213V dna to a homologated superbike would continue the blurring between MotoGP and SBK that began with the arrival of production-based motors in the oft-lambasted CRT sub-class.

The commercial question is, will Honda remember that as brilliant a bike as the RC30 was -- and as collectible as it is now -- under most riders it was no faster than Suzuki's GSX-R750, which was half the price? Honda may have captured the imagination of sport bike riders and club racers when it released and homologated the RC30, but Suzuki sold them the bikes they actually rode and raced. The Gixxer was the category-defining machine, leaving the RC30 as a glorious footnote.

Monday, September 24, 2012

LA firefighters now know something you know

Now available with defibrillator option. If, that is, you work for the LAFD. SoCal firefighters need all the help they can get, fighting fires and clogged freeway traffic. Kawasaki's smart to have convinced them to add motorcycles to the mix just in time for fire season.
A bitchin' story in the LA Times caught my eye this morning -- it seems that the Los Angeles fire department just realized something you already know: that motorcycles can lane-split through clogged traffic even faster than a fire truck with lights and sirens blaring, and that motorcycles can also get places in the hills, off-road, faster than just about anything.

According to the LA Times, "The pilot unit features five off-road-capable motorcycles on loan from the Kawasaki Motor Corp. Each bike retails for about $6,300 and is outfitted with a defibrillator, a small fire extinguisher, various medical supplies and a handlebar-mounted GPS system. A dozen firefighters have undergone the necessary training, and a permanent unit could have up to 10 motorcycles and 28 riders, said Capt. Craig White, who first proposed the unit to the department."

Nice one, Kawasaki, for setting up this pilot program! The specific model is not named in the paper, but it will come as no surprise to Bikewriter readers that they're venerable KLR650s.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Zero recall highlights a larger problem for California manufacturer

A model couple enjoying their limited*-edition Zero S.
(*by buyer interest.)
I see over on A&R that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has issued a recall notice* for Zero's two road-going EV motorcycles. The bikes, apparently, have some defect that can cause them to suddenly lose power.

What caught my eye was, when NHTSA issues a recall, they cite the number of vehicles affected. In the case of the Zero S and DS models, that number was 312.

Yes, with the peak of the 2012 riding season well past, they've sold a total of 312 street bikes this year.

(*Insert your own election-year rant about over-regulation here. I'm sure Rand Paul would happily eliminate NHTSA's funding, confident in the belief that a completely free market is the best mechanism to ensure that auto and motorcycle manufacturers will sell us safe, reliable transportation.)

Friday, September 21, 2012

Hacking the Triumph

I have to work on my bikes outside, in a rough parking lot off the alley in the ghetto where I live. That pretty much limits me to working in the daylight hours. It's finally gotten cool enough to contemplate doing some long overdue basic maintenance on my bikes. Both the Triumph and the scooter were desperate for oil changes, but I couldn't really bear the thought of doing even that when daily highs were over 105 most of the last few months. I suppose the only reason they survived at all was that it was so damned hot I didn't want to ride much anyway.

Anyway, the other day they both got fresh oil, and the cooler weather made me think about the inevitable approach of winter, and the prospect of another couple of months of miserable riding with temperatures at the other end of the thermometer. That made me fantasize about uprating the Triumph. Again.

I can leave it in loading zones because it is a load. Of shite.
It would be very cool to actually make it handle. And go. And, perhaps most of all, stop. The motor (so I'm told) really needs a pair of flat-slide carbs to free it up. A Facebook friend from France assures me that the difference from that one mod is night-and-day. Handling's a trickier problem, as that friend says, the frame may as well be made of sausage. Still, lying on the ground looking up at it while changing the oil, I could see that it would be relatively easy to improve triangulation in the area between the steering head and front motor mount for better stiffness. I could shed some weight by ditching most of the rear subframe and the two bolt-on downtubes that, as far as I can tell, are there mostly for show.

I figure the first assignment would be to source the fork, brakes and front wheel from some semi-recent sport bike, that would instantly improve suspension, stopping power and tire choices at the front. A modern rear wheel, fitted into an aluminum swing arm, suspended by better shocks, would go a long way towards sorting the rear end.

Of course, the problem with this kind of thinking is that even doing this on a shoestring would cost a lot more than it would cost me to buy a 10 year-old GSX-R750 on Craigslist, and no matter what I did to the Triumph, it would never, ever be nearly as competent a machine.

That made me wonder what why it's more appealing for me to take the Triumph from a D-grade bike to a C bike than it would be to just buy a B bike. Then, I read a profile in New Yorker magazine about George Hotz, a computer 'hacker'. Hotz was one of the first guys to jailbreak an iPhone, and later achieved cult status among tech nerds by hacking Sony's PS3 platform.

Hotz has nothing to do with motorcycles, but when I read this comment I suddenly knew that my desire to turn the Triumph into a 'sleeper' suitable for the winding roads of the Ozarks, stemmed from the same urges that motived Hotz... 

“It’s a testosterone thing,” he told New Yorker's David Kushner. “It’s competitiveness, but it isn’t necessarily competitiveness with other people. It’s you versus the system. And I don’t mean the system like the government thing, I mean the system like the computer. ‘I’m going to stick it to the computer. I’m going to make it do this!’ And the computer throws up an error like ‘No, I’m not going to do this.’ It’s really a male thing to say, ‘I’m going to make you do this!’ ”

That's what it's all about, isn't it? The very shite-ness of the Triumph increases the appeal of souping it up. 

Hmm... If you hear of anyone who owns a semi-late model sport bike that's been rear-ended, leaving the front end intact, let me know. Or better yet, someone who's got the stock forks left over from a Daytona Sport Bike project. I'll need something to do over the winter...

Thursday, September 20, 2012

My first bike. Almost.

I was at the Barrington Concours (outside Chicago) earlier this summer, and saw a bike that bore an amazing resemblance to my very first motorbike. It was a 1966 Sears Allstate 'Campus 50' made by Steyr-Daimler-Puch, in Austria. My bike, a Swiss-model Puch 'Condor' was very similar to this one, except that mine had slightly more primitive cycle parts (rigid rear end and trailing link front fork) and bicycle-style pedals. The frame and motor were identical.

This was the bike that I was riding as a 14 year-old in Switzerland, as described in this part of my book, Riding Man...

When I was a kid, my dad worked for a big international company. The company moved our family from Canada to Switzerland, so he could run their Geneva office. Our home was in Tannay, an agricultural village that looked down over orchards and vineyards to a big lake. Under Swiss law, at 14 I was allowed to ride a 50 cc moped. In surrounding countries, mopeds had three-speed transmissions, but in Switzerland, models sold to teenagers had the top gear removed from the box. Thus, in theory, they were limited to 30 kilometers an hour. Trust the Swiss to take the fun out of everything. 

I counted down the days to my fourteenth birthday anyway. My parents bought me the Cadillac of mopeds: a Puch Condor. To start it, I pedaled it like a bicycle. The pedals came in handy for assisting the motor on steep hills, or when we were racing out of slow turns (though digging the inside pedal into the pavement at maximum lean was definitely to be avoided,) 

All the kids I knew had similarly restricted bikes. Since every single time any other kid went faster was a serious personal insult, we endlessly attempted to eke out a little more power. One night, mulling over the possibilities of increased compression, we decided to skim our cylinder heads. Unencumbered by knowledge of milling machines, we cast about for a suitable tool. We found it in a neighbor’s basement: a belt sander. Not one of us waited to see if it worked for anyone else first. We’d have got better results skimming our own stupid heads. Over the next few nights, quite a few local mopeds (which were often left parked outside front gates, in the convenient shadows of stone walls and overgrown hedges) lost their heads. 

At every gas station there was always a special premix pump for motorbikes only. We’d decide how much fuel we were going to buy, which was never much. We told the attendant how much fuel–and what percentage of premix oil–we wanted. 

Knobs were set, and a handle was pulled down, sort of like the handle on an espresso machine. The customer was reassured to see a little spurt of oil sprayed onto the inner wall of the glass “fishbowl” on top of the pump. Then a second handle released the gasoline, which swirled in after the oil, dissolving it. It was a special mixture–different than buying gas for a car–that may as well have been a magic potion. All of us idiots concluded that by reducing the percentage of oil to two percent from the recommended three percent we could get one percent more gasoline, with a concomitant increase in horsepower. 

Of course, nothing we did had any impact on performance at all, except to occasionally make it much worse. The top speed of every bike was determined by the luck of the draw, though since I was the smallest rider, I could pull taller gearing. 

While the bikes were simple and rugged, we were awfully hard on them. We rode without helmets, so it’s amazing we didn’t kill ourselves, even at sorely restricted speeds. Low-siding on cow shit was a common excuse. Once, I took to the ditch at full speed when a tractor and trailer laden with 200 bushels of apples emerged from a hedgerow in front of me. Damage from such wipeouts had to be repaired at the local shop. If my bike would still roll, it was an easy push up the street from my house. 

The mechanic’s shop was a two-bay garage, which along with a tiny beauty salon, made up the ground floor of a two-storey house. He worked on bicycles and mopeds; his wife was the beautician. In general, his customers were not spoiled foreign children; they were real Swiss–farmers, cops, shopkeepers and like, who relied on motorbikes for day-to-day transportation. The wives and girlfriends of those guys were the customers for the salon. All of them were xenophobes. Their treatment of foreigners usually ranged from outright scorn to something resembling the Amish concept of “shunning,” unless money was changing hands. 

If I was pushing in the bike, or walking in to pick it up, I’d always make a little noise, sort of like throat clearing, to warn him of my arrival. He was an intimidating character for a 14-year-old to deal with. He was old; 60 or 70, tall and gaunt. Shaking his hand was like grabbing a bunch of walnuts. When he talked to me, he’d walk up to the sound of my voice, but stare straight out over my head. That was because cataracts had long since rendered him completely blind. His corneas were as opaque as a boiled trout’s. 

He did everything by feel. Routine maintenance, stuff like fitting a new inner tube and tire, was absolutely no problem. Sighted mechanics could do that with their eyes closed too, maybe. But he rebuilt top ends, replaced brake shoes; stuff that utterly baffled me. A few hours a week, he had a sighted assistant that came in, but usually he was alone. When I went there, there was always some little thing he’d borrow my eyes for, like having me read the tiny numbers on a carb jet. 

Occasionally, I’d stop by his shop just to fill up my tires. (The Condor came with a bicycle pump for the purpose, but you had to pump like a madman to overcome leakage in the pump itself. He had a pump powered by a foot treadle that allowed me to run the rock-hard tires I preferred for minimal rolling resistance.) When I asked if I could borrow his pump, he always sternly warned me to replace it exactly–exactly–where I’d found it. 

Luckily for him, the bikes he worked on were all piston-port two-strokes. Their basic design hadn’t changed since the introduction of the NSU Quickly in about 1947. When my bike arrived at his shop for the first time, though, he was fascinated. Until then, most Swiss-market mopeds were sold with rigid front forks, like a bicycle. Mine had an inch or two of suspension travel, thanks to a bogus leading-link arrangement in which a little block of rubber served as both spring and damper. He spent a long time “looking” at it, stroking and probing the workings with his fingers, memorizing the arrangement of the parts. It was not long before he got the chance to repair those forks. 

He had a name, of course, but we just called him “the blind man.” By the time I was old enough to get a moped, my family had lived in Switzerland for several years, and I spoke fluent French. Other foreign families came and went every year or two, so I occasionally introduced new customers to the blind man, and acted as a translator. Since his ability was so extraordinary, I sort of showed him off, I guess. He always took the work. He and his wife were making their living about five bucks at a time, so there was no turning away paying jobs.

American cars. What's not to love?

When style mattered, eh?

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Update: Schwantz ≠ fucked

Update: March 28, 2013

I read that Kevin Schwantz and COTA have kissed and made up. We'll never know exactly what went on, during the negotiations that led to this out-of-court settlement. But the net result is that Schwantz is some quasi-official 'event ambassador' and, presumably, has received some financial compensation.

The friendly tone of the press release belies the bitter nature of the original dispute, and I have to wonder whether Dorna didn't lean on COTA, to settle the case in advance of the upcoming Austin MotoGP event, so that Carmelo Ezpeleta could be spared a reprise of the moment, a year ago, when he was served court papers while eating breakfast.

As far as I'm concerned, COTA could've saved a lot of time and money by just reading the column I wrote about this dispute two years ago, and following my advice (highlighted below and expanded upon a year later, before the inaugural Austin race, here).

April 9, 2012 Dorna released a comment on the ongoing skirmishes between Kevin Schwantz and Circuit of the Americas -- the new Austin track where MotoGP would like to run a third U.S. Grand Prix. Just between the lines, they've fucked Kevin Schwantz off out of the deal.

It's impossible for me to know how central #34 was to the development of Austin's MotoGP plans. The implication of his pending lawsuit is that he was supposed to be a part of it -- maybe even that, but for him, such plans wouldn't even exist. But Dorna's made it pretty clear that, now that Schwantz has fallen out with COTA, it will side with the people who have a track. I suppose that makes short-term strategic sense; they can put on a race and let Texas courts disentangle the relationship between Schwantz, COTA, and Tavo Hellmund -- but if they side with Schwantz, they're fucked if COTA refuses to open the padlock on the track gate.

I bet you anything that Dorna's recent claim that its contract with Schwantz was nullified when he failed to meet a deadline to show a contract with the track is disingenuous. Just because Schwantz didn't have a contract doesn't mean they didn't have an agreement -- it is Texas after all, and as far as Kevin Schwantz was concerned, the deal closed when he shook hands on it. But once Dorna realized that Schwantz and COTA had fallen out, they probably breathed a sigh of relief when they realized that Schwantz' deal wasn't in writing and that in the absence of a contract between Schwantz (as promoter) and the track, Dorna's agreement with Schwantz would lapse.

Where does that leave Schwantz? In the short term, he's fucked. He'll have to prove any way he can, with witnesses and hopefully emails, texts, etc., that he really did have a deal with COTA. That will take years.

What does Dorna's handling of this say about them? I don't think it's too flattering. I mean, I totally get that they'd like to have a great new purpose-built venue in Austin. I'm not sure how solid either Laguna Seca or Indy's contracts are, but the North American market could easily support three or four MotoGP events, and in fact more events in the U.S. are one of the only hopes Dorna has to raise MotoGP awareness above the third tier -- to reach, say, that status of the X-Games. Texas has a great global 'brand' and it's actually easier to sell in MotoGP's main markets of Europe and Asia than either Laguna Seca or Indy. So they should want to race in Austin.

But if I was Dorna, I'd have told COTA, "Hey, we want Kevin to be involved, not an adversary." He's a charismatic guy, well known to local Austin media and beloved by specialist motorcycle media all over the world. Why on earth would you want him as an enemy? It would have been cheaper and strategically wiser to cut him a minority stake in the event.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Good night, Jay Leno

UPDATE Feb 6, 2014 -- Tonight's the last night for the Tonight Show, hosted by America's best-known motorcyclist, Jay Leno.

Although Jay hasn't ruled out doing another TV show, the expectation is that he'll enjoy a semi- 'retirement'. The sneer quotes indicate that he'll maintain the same standup schedule, which would be a full-time job for anyone else.

I'm not sure what the implications are for the famed Leno garage and collection. The story's always been that Jay paid for his lifestyle (which, cars and motorcycles excepted is conservative by Hollywood standards) with his comedy money, and that he just banked the TV money. If that's true, the only thing they might notice in the garage is that the boss is around a lot more.

Some time soon, when the man's easier to reach and interview. I'll try to schedule a chat with him about his future plans, the future of the garage and collection, and

In the meantime, here's a profile of Jay and the garage, that I wrote a few years ago...

Hollywood Confidential: a day with Jay Leno

When I arrived at Jay Leno's garage, the door was open and there were three bikes parked in a pool of sunlight. A Vincent Comet was missing its fuel tank. Its fuel lines, petcock and carb were in pieces for cleaning; it had sat too long without running. There was also a Ducati 250 single that, although it looked pristine didn't want to start, and a 1931 Henderson four. The Henderson was one of the last ones ever made and was shown at the '31 New York Auto Show. It was a police special, with a tell-tale speedo (the needle moves up but has to be reset manually, a feature the cops used when ticketing speeders.) 

“Look,” Jay said, as he pointed to the gauge's needle, “I hit 79 miles an hour on it this morning.”

Then he asked me, “Have you ever ridden a Henderson?” When I said no, he said  “Then let's go! I'll get my other one.” 

Yes, he's got two '31 Hendersons. He disappeared into an adjacent building, while one of his mechanics coached me on a few mindbenders I'd need to remember: The left twistgrip was the spark advance; the clutch was operated by my left foot, and that little thing on the left handlebar that looked like a decompression lever was actually for the front brake which, I was warned, was useless. Last but not least, there were two shift levers on the left side of the fuel tank. I mustn't touch the outer one, as it operated the bike in reverse, for sidecar work. “Jay really shouldn't have put that on there, since he doesn't have a sidecar for it,” someone said. I envisioned nudging the wrong lever by accident, locking up the rear wheel, and spending the rest of my life trolling autojumbles for used Henderson parts.

Jay started both bikes and led me out onto the streets of Burbank, a suburb of Los Angeles. His garage is there because it's near the NBC television studio, where he works. He didn't take me past the studio. No, after giving me about 10 blocks to get used to the utterly alien controls of the oldest motorcycle I'd ever ridden, he led me onto the freeway—Interstate 5, in top 'we've-just-emptied-the-asylums' form. 

Movies and television are full of big stars who indulge themselves with expensive toys, or who wear their custom hogs and Ducatis like designer clothing. By that I mean, they use what's given to them for promotional purposes, preferably at some red-carpet gala while paparazzi flashes pop. 

That's not Jay Leno. His garage—actually a 17,000 square-foot restoration shop with 5 full time employees, and four nearby storage buildings totalling nearly 100,000 square feet—is home to about 100 motorcycles and perhaps as many cars. Almost all of them are licensed and insured and at least occasionally ridden—even loaned to perfect strangers like me. 

But seriously folks, Jay's a guy who's hosted nearly 4,000 editions of The Tonight Show; last year he did another 160 gigs as one of America's highest-paid comedians. For him, talking is work. I guess that's why he preferred to go for a ride. As one of America's lowest-paid journalists, conducting interviews is work for me, so I prefer riding, too. At least, that's what I told myself as I shook and bounced along the freeway, trying not to remember that earlier that day, Jay'd been doing nearly 80 on this old thing.

Once we were safely back in the garage—after only one embarrassing stall—Jay told me the bike I was riding still had its original brake shoes. “I'll bet if you gave the average modern rider a bike like this, with almost no brakes and terrible handling,” he said “they'd actually have fewer crashes, because they'd have to think so far ahead.” Maybe so, but I'm not sure I want to give up disc brakes on the freeway!

When he was a kid growing up in Andover, Massachusetts, Leno and his pals hung out at the Dairy Queen. “It was a big deal if a Corvette pulled up,” he recalls. “”Sometimes I'd go home early and the next day someone would say, 'You missed it! We saw the Vincent.'”

According to local legend the Vincent's owner, who lived in a nearby town, had raced it on the Isle of Man. (Jay now owns that very bike. It may or may not have have genuine TT history, but someone fitted a Norton Roadholder fork and a more conventional swingarm with twin shocks—changes that would've been appropriate for The Island.)

Besides that one, most of the high-performance bikes he saw growing up in small-town New England were in magazines. “I was that kid, sitting in the back of math class, with a  copy of Cycle World,” he told me. “I was in the eighth grade in 1964, when they put out an issue with a white and gold Triumph Bonneville on the cover, and I thought it was beautiful. A couple of years later, I saw a new Bonneville at a dealer and there was a sticker on the fuel tank that read, 'For Expert Riders Only.' I was 16 and had never actually ridden a bike. So I thought, that's perfect for me.” 

After fantasizing about it for years, his first riding experience was hardly the stuff dreams were made of. “I was about 18, and I bought a used Honda 350,” he remembered. “I'd never ridden a motorcycle, and the salesman handed me the keys. I was wearing prescription glasses, I had no helmet, and it started to rain as I rode home. A big truck passed me, and in the wind blast, my glasses flew off.”

Seeing the humor in his own misadventures always came naturally to him. Before he was out of college, he got gigs as a stand-up comedian in Playboy clubs. “After I graduated, I worked in car dealerships by day and did comedy at night,” he told me. “I kept the day job money in one pocket, and the comedy money in the other one. When there got to be a lot more money in that pocket, I realized I could make a good living in show business.”

One of his first big purchases was a Honda CBX. “When it came out, it was amazing. I had to have one, and of course I crashed it. By the time I got the insurance settlement, Kawasaki had come out with an even bigger bike, and dealers couldn't move CBX. I replaced it with one with a fairing and saddlebags. It was a better bike, but I didn't like it as much.” Even so, he's still got it. When I asked him if he'd ever sold a bike, he looked at me as if I'd asked whether he'd ever sold a kidney. 

To this day, he's got the two pockets of money, they're just really, really big pockets. “I live off the money I make doing comedy, and bank all the television money,” he told me. That's gotta' be a lot in the bank, considering that he's spent years as the top-rated host in American television. Now, he can buy whatever he wants.

“Sometimes, you buy the story as much as the bike,” he told me. “A few years back, I crashed a Vincent, and I was limping around on the Tonight Show, and I said, 'If anyone out there has a Vincent gas tank they want to sell, call me.' Sure enough, some old guy calls from Florida and says, 'I have a gas tank, but you have to buy the whole bike.' He gives me the serial number, and I call the Vincent club and they tell me the bike with that number is lost. It was the third Black Shadow ever made, it was sold to an American G.I. and never seen again. They mention the G.I.'s name, and I'm stunned. It's the old guy who called. It turned out he brought the bike home, it broke the bronze idler gear, and he put it aside. Then he got married, had kids, he just never got around to it. The bike was still virtually new.”

When I asked him when, along the line, he went from being a guy with lots of cars and bikes to being a serious collector, he winced. “I don't think of myself as a collector,” he said, “because I ride all of them.” He doesn't enter concours. “I've got four or five mechanics and restorers working for me. So it wouldn't be fair to compare one of my bikes to some bike that a fireman worked on, by himself, in his little garage.” Nor does he loan stuff to museums, since he's had bad experiences with it coming back damaged. 

Not that he babies his rides; far from it. He's got a 1924 Brough Superior—an ex-Brooklands race bike that looks as spare and dangerous as anything. I was aghast when he told me he'd been clocked at over 100 miles an hour on it, out on the freeway. Although he's well known to local cops who cut him plenty of slack, he also has the honour of driving the oldest car that's ever been ticketed for speeding in the state of California.

Bernard Juchli is the general manager of Jay's garage, so when a bike's pushed too hard, it becomes one of Bernard's projects. “Most of the year, Jay comes in once a day after taping his show, and spends an hour or two with us,” he said. “Jay only rides or drives one vehicle a day, so he doesn't break too much. But during the summer he's here all day, and he'll take out five or six vehicles, so he creates more work for us.”

“I tell him, Jay, just because it went 100 miles an hour when it was made doesn't mean it should go that fast now,” Bernard says with a smile. In general, Jay doesn't abuse his bikes, but he's not particularly sensitive, either. “Sometimes he'll bring something in that's making a terrible noise, and I'll say, you should have called us, we would have picked you up. He says, 'It's OK, I made it in,' and I'll tell him yes, but...” Bernard's voice trails off with a shrug, and he smiles. He points out that Jay's a pretty good mechanic. “He'll call me up from the side of the road, broken down, and ask me what to do,” he says, “and then half an hour later he'll call back saying, 'I'm home.'”

Working in Jay's Garage is a good job. His mechanics tend to be guys who had their own shops specializing in restoration and vintage race preparation. They appreciate  recession-proof job security, being surrounded by great bikes and cars, and most of all they appreciate the fact that now, they only have one customer to keep happy.

Bernard's been with Jay almost ten years. He's an ex-bike and car racer, who previously owned a Jaguar specialty shop up in San Francisco. His arrival gave Jay's garage more fabrication expertise, and they've acquired quite a set of tools in order to exploit his talents. “I don't know of any private individual who's got this much equipment,” he says, gesturing towards the CNC milling machines, water-jet cutting table with a 15-foot bed, and a 3-D printer for parts prototyping. They can make virtually any part, for any vehicle, in-house.

The afternoon I was there, they were stripping down a '55 gull-wing Mercedes sports car that Jay had recently bought. They found one of the alloy brake drums had some cooling fins broken off. Jay and three or four of his employees stood around, looking at the broken part, and debated the merits of machining a matching alloy piece that could be welded in, versus finding a replacement part. The conversation probably went on ten minutes. The atmosphere was nothing like workers talking to their boss, and even less like mechanics talking to a client. It felt more like a clubhouse, or perhaps like some kind of mechanics' heaven. There was no pressure to find the most economical, or fastest, solution. Just the best one.

Bernard told me that in his past job, he dealt with a lot of rich guys who were perfectly happy to write monthly cheques for two years, then get their car back without ever seeing the work in progress. Jay wants to see all the work as it's done. During his long television season, even if he only drops in once a day he calls five more times. (Jay told me he enjoys his work, but it's clear to me that he'd rather be getting his hands dirty.)

Jay's fascination for vintage bikes is centered on the fact that riders can still understand them, and work on them. I rode up to the garage on a new BMW K1300GT. It's an amazing bike and he was interested in it, but clucked at the bodywork that essentially sealed away the bike's working parts. He definitely doesn't think that represents progress, no matter how good a new bike is.

“I have this book that was published in the '20s,” Jay said, “called 'Projects for Boys.' It's full of projects like building your own steam engines and making your own crystal radios. Those were thought of as projects for boys. Nowadays, men can't do that stuff.”

Although if you're Jay Leno, you've got the money, the will, and the facilities—and will still come up with interesting projects. He showed me a contraption, not quite finished, that is part knucklehead Harley, part 1902 Knox steam engine and (I'm not kidding) a heat exchanger from a Titan nuclear missile. 

“The Air Force sold that to me,” he said. It's obviously good to be Jay Leno when you want a favour. He added wryly, “I guess I built that to gain entrance to the More Money Than Brains Club.” He's a little bit embarrassed by the Hollywood star cult's free-food-for-millionaires ethos; he's aware of the irony in the fact that, now that he can afford anything he wants, manufacturers of new bikes often give him machines.

Like the rest of us, he's always retained a soft spot for the bikes he lusted after back in his salad days. Bonnevilles, Vincents, BSA Gold Stars, and bevel-drive Ducatis predominate. “I'll look at the cover of Classic Bike now, and think, oh, so they're writing about new bikes...” he says, leaving a comic beat before adding, “But it's not that the bikes are new, it's that I'm that old.” 

His interests go back further, too. He's got bikes from the pioneer era, and has even collected several huge steam engines. Towards the end of the day, Jay wheeled out a 1918 Pope. He loving pointed out details like it's front and rear suspension, chain drive, 3-speed tranny; all features that were relatively new in the bike's day. It had elegant concealed cables, and an ingenious half-and-half clutch pedal that, when fully depressed also activated the rear brake. He'd owned it 25 years. 

“Riding this thing,” He said as he pulled on a helmet, “sixty miles an hour feels like 200.”

I stood there with his mechanics and watched as he kicked the Pope to life and rode out the gate and around the corner. Just as we turned back into the garage, there was a loud metallic sound, and they all froze in place, eyes wide. After a moment, one of Jay's guys jogged out for a better look.

“It was just a garbage truck,” he said with relief, adding “I hate that sound.”

With good reason. With the tools at their disposal they can fix any bike, but they can't make another boss like Jay.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

If only my TT times could be as enhanced as Paul Ryan's marathon claim

Me. Lapping the TT course in 2002 at nearly 130 mph average speed, adjusted to PREF*
(*PRF=Paul Ryan Exaggeration Factor)
Paul Ryan's actual marathon time, something over four hours, is nothing to be ashamed of. But why claim, as he did, that it was under three hours?

After being caught in this blatant lie exaggeration, Ryan excused it as something he's misremembered. Frankly, I doubt it, and so does almost anyone who's run a marathon. If you've run one, it's almost always an important (26.2) milestone in your life, and you remember your time. If you've run more than one, you remember your PB. Maybe Ryan would argue that he's the rare first-marathon finisher for whom the achievement was not significant, but if that's so, why did he bring it up on the campaign trail in the first place?

I only wish I could get away with such a claim. My fastest TT lap came in a race in which I finished second-last, but if I inflated my average speed, in percentage terms, as much as Paul Ryan, I would have set the outright Mountain Course record.
Paul "I'm great with numbers, that's why the Republicans look to me for budget leadership" Ryan

A note from the Dept. of Bass-Ackwards: A bike guy goes to a car museum/Meet at the Ace/LeMay Museum, Tacoma

In August, I was invited to come out to the new LeMay-America’s Car Museum in Tacoma. Don’t worry, I haven’t become a car guy; the LeMay was holding a cafe-racer themed event called “Meet at the Ace” in order to tap into the Northwest’s motorcycle scene. The museum’s pretty cool. It’s definitely worth pulling off I-5 if you ever find yourself traveling through Tacoma, which is about half-an-hour south of Seattle.

I thought I was coming out to read from the newly re-released second edition of Riding Man, and only later realized that I’d been roped into judging a motorcycle concours -- an assignment for which I’m laughably underqualified.

The LeMay Museum grew out of the private collection of Harold LeMay, an eccentric, self-made Tacoma native who turned one frequently broken-down truck into one of the nation’s largest garbage-hauling businesses. Along the way, he made a fortune and acquired a collection of 3,000 or so cars.

A few miles away, the LeMay family still maintains a collection open to the public, that is essentially in competition with the new museum. It also includes a few bikes including this period chopper with chopped sidecar -- a machine Harold regularly rode. The story goes that he also owned a company called Lucky Towing, and that many of his motorcycles were picked up as wrecks. Often, the owners wanted nothing to do with the bikes, and traded them to Harold to pay off towing fees. Perhaps the company should have been named 'Unlucky Towing.'

Harold's office, preserved. His car collection was probably the car equivalent to his desk organization.
The new museum got several hundred of Harold's cars, and used them as the foundation of the collection on display now. The family also put up some money, although a major fund-raising effort was also required. I saw Jay Leno’s name on the list of people who gave $100,000 plus. The original plan was grandiose, but the fund-raising effort got underway just as the economy was tanking. The result is that the current museum, already pretty fabulous, is really just half of what’s planned in the long term.

Since I was a guest, I didn’t pry as much as I would have liked to, but it’s pretty clear that after the museum got underway, there was a bit of a falling-out with the LeMay heirs. I think it had something to do with the fact that while Harold’s collection had a few real gems, most of it was made up of shitty old used cars that didn’t run. The museum wanted to sell many of them off and buy up a few better examples. Harold never sold cars, and his family rankled at the idea that after his death, the collection would be reduced (even though I have the impression that his son Doug has, himself pared some of the large collection that the family retained.)

In fact, there are two LeMay car museums in Tacoma. There are hundreds of cars and a few bikes on display at a renovated school seven miles from the new museum, and I’m told that there are still hundreds of cars stored at the family home, and hundreds more scattered in warehouses around Tacoma.
The Meet at the Ace organizers arranged for me to borrow a new BMW R1200RT so that, on the Sunday after the concours, I could go on a ride organized by the Vintage Motorcycle Enthusiasts, from Tacoma to the base of Mt. Rainier. 
Richard Backus, who edits Motorcycle Classics magazine, was another judge. He borrowed this sweet Guzzi Falcone and, notwithstanding a suspension setup that was both unique and primitive, he reported that it handled well on the ride to Mt. Rainier.
The museum had also brought in photographer extraordinaire Mike Lichter, to shoot the concours and the ride. A couple of years ago, I met Mike while covering the Cannonball motorcycle rally across the U.S. He was the guy with the camera, sitting backwards on the passenger seat of a motorcycle. He actually crossed the entire country backwards. It emerged that that was how he planned to shoot the VME Mt. Rainier ride, too, but that no one had been assigned to pilot him. That’s when I noticed people pointing at me and saying, “Mark will do it.”
No, we're not riding this way because we're homophobic...
...we're riding this way so the aptly-named Mr. Lichter can get amazing shots like this one.
So I spent the day riding around with Mike shifting around behind me. The truth is, the BMW was so stable that I couldn’t really feel him back there. But I’ve always wondered about the motorcyclists that ferry journalists around during the Tour de France, and now I have a sense of what it’s like. When the photo session ended, we were an hour or so from our start point. From then on, we were just riding back. 

“Do you want to turn around and sit normally?” I asked. 

“No,” Mike replied, “I’ve put in so many miles like this that this feels normal to me now.”