Last weekend the quiet town of Watkins Glen, located at the southern tip of Seneca Lake, largest of New York's Finger Lakes, was invaded by a band of leather-jacketed motorcycle riders and their incredible—and also leather-jacketed—dolls. On Saturday night, the night before the 150-mile road race, many of the riders in a holiday mood, their girls perched astraddle behind them, rode restlessly up and down the street past the dining room where 28-year-old Richard Scott Mann, leader in the scramble toward the national motorcycle championship, sat gloomily waiting for his dinner.
Mann was sipping a predinner VO and ginger. His ear was cocked to the noises that sputtered into the room from outside. "Street riders," he said with a grimace, his strong, freckled hand closing a little tighter on his glass.
Mann, who is whippet-thin, red-haired and known, for no special reason, as Little Bugs, was absorbed in the thought of Sunday's challenge and Saturday's ignominy. Those street riders had come rambling to town to see a performance by him and his peers in the seventh of 13 races from which comes the national champion. They knew that he was one of the half-dozen best of the country's 300,000 or so motorcycle riders (including the 1,500 who engage in some kind of competition); that Dick Mann's special art is something like playing concert piano in a wind tunnel; that he was the not-so-Young Turk who might strip from Wisconsin's Carroll Resweber, two years his junior, the national crown Resweber had worn for four consecutive years. Mann was ahead on points. Resweber, who is even slimmer than Mann but laced with piano-wire muscle, had missed two events due to a broken hand. He stood third but had a determined man's chance to retain his title by the season's end.
The raucous street riders knew something more: like themselves, Little Bugs became a second-class citizen the moment he put on his leathers. Mann stared into his glass. "People look at us and think we're trash—maybe they don't even know why they think so, maybe they've seen street riders raising hell somewhere. They don't know that 95% of the people who ride cycles are decent people. The trouble is that the few bad ones are even worse than people think. I personally never ride on the streets anymore. You might be going along at 20 looking straight ahead and the law stops you. No reason except you're on a bike. Once in Florida, away back in the boondocks where I couldn't have bothered anybody, a cop stopped me with his gun drawn, because he thought I was going to race another rider. I spent a day in jail for that—for nothing."
Mann cut into the steak that was placed before him.
"When I ride just for pleasure," he went on, "I go up in the hills near where I live, across the Bay from San Francisco, and just fool around up there where there aren't any streets or people or police. Why, I can take a bike up some old bald hills that look so steep you wouldn't believe a horse could get up them. In a way, it's like having a neat horse, fun like that. I think almost anybody would like it."
Mann was born in Salt Lake City, the son of a working cowboy. As a youngster he was taken to Las Vegas and then to Richmond, Calif. He now lives at neighboring El Sobrante. He began riding motorcycles because he was too puny to be considered for the team sports in school. As a teen-ager he raced in minor events at nearby tracks. By 1955 he was rated an "expert," the top category of the American Motorcycle Association, and he has been among the top 10 in the national rankings since 1957, once placing second to Resweber.
"Not too many people can tell you why they race," he said. "The financial rewards are not exactly great. In an exceptional year the very best rider could earn, say, $12,000 from racing alone. Most riders have second jobs. Winters I'm a mechanic in a cycle shop. Your social position is not what you could call great, either. You do it because you do it, that's all. Joe Leonard is the greatest rider we've ever had. He is a fine auto racing driver. He finds an owner and does real well racing midgets and then just quits and comes back to riding. I know how he feels."
Mann, whose only severe injury has been a shattered knee, said he believes that motorcycle racing is not as dangerous as car racing, although riders are killed once in awhile (Bob Webster, of Toronto, died in a three-cycle smashup at Watkins). In any case, the thrill of a dangerous pursuit is evidently not the secret of his passion.
"It's a complex proposition," he said. "There's more to riding than just sitting down and going around and around. Forgetting the mechanical side of it—steering geometry, proper gear ratios, carburetion, tire pressure and so on—just consider what you do in a road race like the one here. O.K., you're going along at the Glen at 120 mph with your chin down against the gas tank to cheat the wind and you come to the chicane—a hard right, a left and a right. You don't think about what you're going to do, there isn't time; if you have to think, you're too slow.
"Your right-hand grip is the throttle and in front of it is the front-brake lever. In front of the left grip is the clutch lever. Your right foot is on the gearshift pedal—under it, I should say—and your left foot is on the rear-brake pedal. Here comes the chicane. You sit up into the wind to help slow the bike and you hit the front and rear brakes simultaneously. You shift down from fourth gear to third. You do this by squeezing the clutch lever, rolling the throttle—revving it—with your right thumb while still holding the front-wheel brake on and lifting the gear lever with your right boot toe. As you complete this, you slack pressure on the rear brake just a little so the rear wheel won't break loose as it takes hold in the lower gear. But you still have the front brake on hard. An instant later you repeat all this, shifting down to second, and then to low. Just before you get into low you start leaning into the turn. You don't steer the bike except a little bit; mostly you just lean. In the turn you start getting back on the throttle, opening up and backing off as you go through the rest of the chicane.
"Coming out of it, you want to go flat out. You throttle up to 7,000 rpms in first gear. When you shifted down, you toed up on the shift pedal. Shifting up, you kick the pedal down a notch at a time. At 7,000 rpms, the maximum I've set for myself here, you push what we call the "kill" button with the left hand and momentarily kill the engine. Without using the clutch, you simultaneously kick down into second, then rev up again, kick into third and finally into high. We use the kill button to save a fraction of a second while shifting gears. Shutting off for that little time lets you shift without using the clutch and yet not damaging the gears. No, sir, you are not just riding around.
"My bike is an English Matchless. It weighs just under 300 pounds, has a displacement of 30½ cubic inches in one cylinder, with a single overhead camshaft. Resweber rides the hottest Harley-Davidson in the country. They're the only make produced in the States, and in our championship racing they're allowed 45 cubic inches displacement because of their less efficient side-valve arrangement. Watch Resweber."
But it was Resweber who had to watch Mann's tailpipe for 23 of those 66 laps as Mann sprinted away at the start. Then, sadly, his motor died not for a split second but for keeps, and in the end Resweber won like the champion he is. With only one lap to go, he put his violent little bike into the lead and slammed across the finish line a few seconds ahead of his closest pursuer. Although Mann received no points, he held his advantage in the championship chase—by a single point over Carroll Resweber.