"Well, they are people, just like us—from within our own solar system. Except that their society is more highly evolved. I mean, they don't have no wars, they got no monetary system, they don't have any leaders, because, I mean, each man is a leader."
Thus spake Jack Nicholson, the whiskey lawyer of Easy Rider. Though his Utopian sentiment was intended to describe Venusians in flying saucers, it might well stand as a working definition of the motorcycle crowd. The image of that particular subculture is at once freewheeling and cool: contemptuous of big cars and of the big money it takes to buy them, calculatedly unstructured and highly individualistic. Still, the definition fails at certain levels. In point of fact, the motorcycle people do have wars—fiercely competitive ones, waged on dirt tracks and slick road courses, over mountains tall as the Bible and through swamps as dense as Vietnam. In point of fact, they do have monetary systems—including prize money that can get up to $50,000 a race and costs that may run to $9,000 per vehicle entered. Right now, to be sure, they have no truly dictatorial leaders—those czars will doubtless arise as the sport reaches higher evolutionary forms. And thus far, at least, each rider is indeed a leader unto himself.
But, all of those contradictions aside, the definition is a sound one, particularly since motorcycling, in terms of mass participation, is the most exciting new sport to arise in recent American history. In approaching the phenomenon, one must look beyond the clichés. No sport has suffered more than motorcycling from the tendency of mankind to lump, and by lumping to reject. Like all clichés, the ones that grew up around motorcycles have been warped and shallow. Hell's Angels with their cruel chains and obscene sex rites. The spine-rattling sound of two-cycle engines racketing down a quiet country road. Leathern bands of Wild Ones threading their effortless, contemptuous way through traffic jams that leave mere four-wheeled Americans cussing in a kind of blue, smoggy funk.
All right, so these manifestations of cyclomania do exist; they are only a glimmer on the surface. Motorcycles are here—now—and in depth. They are being ridden by a vast, complex swarm of Americans, many of whom compete in racing. Motorcycle registrations in the U.S. have risen from 1.4 million in 1967 to nearly 3 million this year. Very few of those riders are dope smokers, long-hairs or other standard freaks. They range from factory workers who feel the pinch of the recession and react by buying an inexpensive and exciting means of transportation, to old grannies in Bell helmets, to straight dads and moms in leathers who want a breath of fresh air. Ditch diggers and doctors, scholars and politicians, they all find fun—and a bit of release from the heavy weight of the society—by tripping on bikes. Motorcycling has become not only a major theme in American folklore, √† la Easy Rider, but a booming varooming new sport.
June 20, 1971
Last week, for instance, the men and women, kids and grannies who follow motorcycling had their choice of some 250 separate events to watch or, more important, to enter. They ranged in place and manner from a hill climb in Seattle to a road race in Loudon, N.H. In between and all around there were scrambles in Bloomingburg, N.Y., motocross races at Elkhorn, Wis., a road run in Lone Pine, Calif., an indoor sprint in the Boston Garden. The 23 national championship races sponsored this year by the American Motorcycle Association will pay more than $1 million in prize money to some 163,000 riders. And the riding is not so easy. Gene Romero, the 23-year-old Californian who currently wears plate No. 1 as the AMA's national motorcycle champion, earned more than $60,000 last year in prize and contingency money, which is not bad pay for a man who won only three of 26 races. But Romero worked hard for that bread: he traveled 100,000 miles, stayed away from home from March to October and scraped off at least a yard of hide in the spills he took en route to the title.
But there is no way that statistics alone can tell the tune of motorcycling. One must hit the high notes—catch a two-cycle Kawasaki cutting out from a stoplight, or a Honda hitting the quick changes. Take a close look at three of last week's events, varying in scope from professional through amateur to just plain happy. The impression gained from each adds up to a representative whole.
Louisville. Horse country, all green and lithe, the colts hiking awkwardly after their graceful dams. A border country where Southern syrup mixes with Middle Western vinegar. The dark and bloody ground. It is 95° Fahrenheit in the shade, and the humidity could drown a frog. The AMA has chosen Louisville Downs, a harness track, as the site of its sixth national championship race of 1971. Plenty of riders are here—138 of them, to be precise; 76 "experts" and 62 "juniors." The biggest card of the season, the biggest names: Romero, Mann, Lawwill, Rice, Aldana, Nixon (Gary, no kin to Dick). Because this is a dirt course, light brown loam crusted over by sprinklers and a hot Kentucky sun, the riders have wrapped handguards over their bars. Many of the guards are made of cardboard. One consists of a brace of Coors six-pack cartons. As practice begins, the knobby rear tires of the bikes throw up long, slashing rooster tails of grit—stinging little clots that reach clear into the bleachers.
It smarts, but the crowd does not complain. Motorcycles wheel up to the parking lot in grumbling platoons. Figures in leather jackets and spangled helmets dismount and peel off their disguises. By gum, there stands an old woman, her teeth conveniently in her pocket. A broad-beamed man with the face of a cost accountant claps his hands and hikes off into the infield, side by side with a grinning longhair. Acres of bikes lean on their kickstands in the waning sun, backlit by an orange, ominous glow. A black couple buys some beers, then takes seats amid the reddest-neck group in the stands. They exchange enthusiasms over the riders. One begins to think, absurdly, that motorcycling may be the glue of the future society.
There are the shaggy members of motorcycle clubs—Saints from Tennessee, Vigilantes from Indianapolis in their cut-down Levi jackets with pins reading I'LL DRINK TO THAT; Vikings wearing that almost forgotten slogan: DEATH BEFORE DISHONOR; Road Rangers, Soul Seekers, Silver Wheels, the Aeolus Motorcycle Club of Cincinnati in American-flagged red leather vests with a cool legend which said GOD OF THE WINDS.
Because this crowd contains participants as well as spectators, one sees the walking wounded everywhere. There are broken thumbs, broken handbones, wristbones, armbones, shoulderbones, neckbones—now hear the word of the Lord. But there are no fights.
To a man the riders are colorful and dashing. Also, just a bit flaccid. Dick Mann, at 35 the senior rider on the circuit and the winningest with 20 national championship victories under his belt, is scarred and lean, as tough as the leathers he has worn through 17 racing seasons. But others, quicker on the cramped oval dirt courses like Louisville, Roosevelt Raceway (where 21,000 watched a bike race last month), California's Ascot raceway, or even Madison Square Garden, are a touch too fat, a hair too limp in the neck and shoulders to be convincing as real athletes. Mann is the only AMA rider who has won national championship races in all of the association's categories: dirt and short track, tourist trophy (which includes jumps), road races (50 miles or more on pavement), hill climbs and the recently imported motocross from Europe (SI, May 3).
In the Louisville prelims a few realities become evident. This is a Harley-Davidson course. The dirt causes a lot of wheelspin, and the only American motorcycle still in production seems to thrive on slippage. Though big British bikes like the Triumph, BSA and Norton succeed impressively in the semifinals, Harley finishes one-two in the 10-mile final. Dave Sehl, a shy, scrappy man from Waterdown, Ontario who now lives in Atlanta and has an Adam's apple bigger than his chin, takes the checkers and $2,200 of the $10,000 purse. Dave is only 24. Along the way Gene Romero, the champ, loses it in Turn Three and hits the fence. In a race at Louisville last year a rookie named Ken Pressgrove hit the wall in Turn One, blasted through the protective hay bales and chopped a truck-sized hole in the wall, splattering blood all over the concrete. Pressgrove was killed. Romero merely spilled, then picked up his Triumph bike and raced on to finish ninth overall, thus gaining valuable points toward his championship defense. "It was a near thing," he admitted later. Shirtless and moviestar-handsome in his garage, Romero came on like the traditional California cool kid: "Usually if you hit the fence, you waste an arm or a leg. I was damned lucky." Romero smiles—white teeth, just a touch of flab on his naked gut.
Ensenada, Mexico. Desert country, all dun and sere, a cold green sea crashing on the beach with a rocky clatter. It has been overcast for weeks down here, and as the 240 off-road racers who participate annually in the Baja 500 congregate, the invocation rises: "Here comes the sun." No such luck. One must seek other warmth in Hussong's cantina, where the tequila is sharp and stuffed birds bristle on the walls. Hussong's is a gunfighter's saloon and Ensenada a salesman's town, but during the middle of the second week in June it becomes a desert fox's delight. Last year Parnelli Jones won the 500 in a Bronco desert truck—clearing the 557 miles of loose dirt, hard rock, deep gullies and potholed straightaways in 11 hours and 55 minutes. Motorcycles used to win the Baja races outright, but now the four-wheelers have the edge. Yet this race, cycle-wise, was in good shape. For openers there was Dick Vick, 41, a fireman from San Clemente, Calif. who has been racing bikes over the long roads and the longer non-roads for 15 years. In love with the desert but badly hurt in a wreck two years ago, he had given up off-road racing—given up, that is, until he was asked to ride a Triumph 650 called "The Dirty Little Ole Man" in this Baja. It was the last race for the bike, a 1965 model that would be "put out to stud" by its owner after the run, and probably the last race for Vick. He finished in 15 hours and 10 minutes.
Then there was Frank Danielsen, 43, an excavator from West Los Angeles and among the oldest of the 36 motorcycle entries. Since Frank was riding a sidehack—a motorcycle with a platform sidecar—he had the opportunity of teaming up with the youngest rider, Pete Breum, 15½. Danielsen bought his bike from Steve McQueen, actor and sometime desert racer, for $500. Then he put $2,500 into it for his 1970 entry in the longer Baja 1,000-mile race, and finished 10th in his class. A bit of an artist—Danielsen creates junk sculptures—he decorated his bike with such slogans as HELPS RID LUNGS OF EXCESS PHLEGM. Amply supplied with Crackerjack and water, Danielsen and Breum made it all the way, and they certainly rid their own lungs of excess phlegm. "Biking is all about getting out of the cities," said Danielsen. "You can't lose if you get out and get it on."
Above all, there was a Swedish Husqvarna 400-cc. bike ridden by the two most eminent desert foxes of them all: Malcolm Smith, 30, "gentleman rider" from Riverside, Calif., and J. N. Roberts, 28, of Sun Valley, Calif. Smith is, by McQueen's estimate, "probably the best all-round rider in the country." A shy, jug-eared, wiry man with muddy eyes and a disarming smile, Smith is the last rider one would suspect of aggression on the starting line, yet he runs as if possessed. Roberts, who has won Nevada's Mint 400 off-road race, is a gritty rider with plenty of nitty.
The Baja is a test of eyes and stamina. One must read the desert—all of its ruts, all of its whims—and put up with its bruises. Downcourse from Ensenada, for instance, a rider last week ran into the leading edge of a tree. Its lowest, most aggressive branch punched a ragged hole in his cheek, but he raced on anyway—away from medical attention—figuring it was better to finish than be healed. Another rider blew a tire, ran on for many miles, changed the flat, quickly accelerated to 100 mph and flipped his bike in a pothole. Cursing, he spent 25 minutes under the machine before he could be extricated, then waited overnight in the desert, bloody but uncowed, before he could be flown back to Ensenada for treatment. By contrast, Smith and Roberts had an easy time of it. J.N. took the opening 275-mile stanza and whipped into the midway point of Papa Fernandez well ahead of the other bikes and all of the cars. (Parnelli Jones, by the way, dropped a valve in his 1971 car and exited the Baja in the first hour.)
It was clear and crisp at Papa Fernandez when Roberts arrived, his presence signaled by a tan plume of dust and the strident whine of his engine ricocheting off the rocks and echoing over the warm, fish-rich waters of the Sea of Cortés. Dusty, deadbeat and full of advice, he turned the bike over to Smith just as a yellow full moon rose. Running north from Papa Fernandez, where the overnighters were slugging rum to ward off the chill, Smith encountered stiff southwesterly winds. "When you jumped," he chortled later, "you landed 10 feet wide of the line you jumped from. I was riding the straight sections at a 45-degree angle into the wind." Smith slashed his way through the wind—not to mention the dry lake bed of El Diablo and the steep slopes of the Sierra San Pedro Martir—and across the finish line back in Ensenada to complete the Roberts-Smith ride in just 11:59.28, a new bike record. "If we could have started at dawn, we would have won it all," he said later, standing shy and dusty in a canvas coat and slashed boots. "Riding a bike flat out at night is almost impossible. The cars have two headlights and four wheels worth of stability. When we turn our front wheel to corner, we lose sight of the road ahead. At night we lose everything we've gained." Still, Smith and Roberts finished third overall behind two four-wheeled beasts and, of course, first among all the bikes.
"I've been in this sport now for 15 years," Smith said. "I started when I was so small that they had to hold me on the pegs until we got the start. My legs wouldn't reach the ground, but I could sure corner lower than the rest of them. It's all changing. There are so many people into it now. I kinda liked it better in the old days, when you knew everybody. Now it's just like, well, a freeway."
Ascot Park, Gardena, Calif. A track just off the freeway. The jets that put down at L.A. International Airport slide past like hawk shadows; the crowd is made up of Cub Scouts and riders' friends.
When the annual Yamaha Gold Cup Race is held next month, 15,000 will attend. Tonight, though, there are only 4,000 on hand. One of them is Robert Beck, 34, a printer from Westchester, Calif. and a motorcyclist who has two cycle-happy kids—a boy who runs a 50-cc. Wyler mini-bike in competition and a girl who just watches. "The land is being closed off by the ecologists," Beck complains. "California has opened up motorcycle parks now, places like Saddleback, which is 750 acres just back of Irvine. But the parks are too crowded, too expensive. They charge $3 for my 250-cc. Montesa and two bucks for my boy's mini-bike. Still, what can you do? The sheriff's department is patrolling the desert with helicopters. In a way you have to come to the racetracks to get your biking kicks anymore."
Oh, yes, motorcycles are here. Admittedly they are often loud, often destructive, often dangerous to those who ride them. Steve McQueen, who has raced sports cars with facility and success, and whose 1963 movie The Great Escape accelerated the popularity of dirt racing on motorcycles, has thought long and hard on the subject of the bike's future. "As transportation, the motorcycle doesn't work," he concludes. "Too dangerous. I'd never choose to ride one on the street. You're helpless. But as sport it is just plain splendid. There is not the high fatality rate you find in cars. Like, when you hit the wall at 200 mph you might as well forget about the cash in the policy. But when you make a mistake with a motorcycle, you feel it, you remember it and possibly you don't make the same mistake again. Possibly. I mean, dirt is forgiving of mistakes. Dirt racing, off-road racing like the Baja, is an experience everyone could enjoy, though only a few can really succeed at it. And that's cool, too. O.K., maybe you get a bit dingy during the Baja—you start seeing purple deer bounding along next to you. Yeah, ha! But it's better than smoking dope. Better than trying to live inside your head and imagining adventures. And even when you wrap up the bike into a tight little ball you haven't destroyed that much property, you haven't taken too many lives, and you can always try to do it right the next time."
And if you do it right, you're a leader. In our own solar system.