Two flats that led to a flat-out finish

As tires kept going bad, Yamaha's hope of realizing its "sure win" in the Daytona 200 rested on the cool nerve of a youthful Venezuelan rider
March 15, 1976

Last Tuesday the Associated Press moved an item about four scientific researchers who believe that the secret to safer crash helmets can be found by studying woodpeckers. The scientists said that woodpeckers pound their beaks against trees whenever they're hungry or nervous—which covers most of the time they aren't sleeping—and seem none the sillier for the bashing. That story was given prominent display on page one of the Daytona Beach Journal sports section, since all week long dozens of motorcycle riders had been bouncing their heads off the pavement of the Daytona International Speedway and had survived, seemingly no more dingy than before. The implication was that maybe the scientists should come to motorcycle speedweek next year and take a look at the bike riders instead of chasing through the woods observing woodpeckers.

There certainly would be ample opportunity to study the species. This year the speedweek's top event, the 200-mile expert road race, drew 138 entries—57 of them from 18 foreign countries—attempting to qualify for the 80 starting positions. Motorcycles have been racing at Daytona for 35 years—until 1959 on the beach—but the 200 has only earned its reputation as the world's most prestigious motorcycle race in the last few years. Today it is motorcycling's Indy. It pays more than any other American Motorcycle Association championship race ($65,000), attracts the largest crowd in the U.S. (an estimated 60,000 although, like Indy, attendance figures are never released) and is the first round in the International Formula 750 Championship season.

All through the week a fleet of charter planes had been landing right next to the Speedway at Daytona Beach Regional Airport bringing in European and Japanese fans. One plane, a Boeing 747 from Amsterdam, was the first jumbo jet ever to touch down on the relatively short 7,500-foot runway. It was so inspiring an occasion that 5,000 natives turned out, picnic lunches in hand, to watch the big plane arrive. "When we get off the plane we see all the people cheering and we are astounded," said one Dutch passenger. "We think how nice Americans are to greet us."

Throughout motorcycle speedweek Daytona's fast-food joints were filled with ubiquitous Frenchmen trying to convey the even more ubiquitous grits into their mouths with forks held upside down in their left hands. The Continentals were easy to spot even when they weren't eating, at least after their first sightseeing excursion to Disney World in nearby Orlando. They were the ones wearing the Mickey Mouse ears.

The Americans were the ones wearing sleeveless denim jackets with patches sewn on the back that proclaimed things like DEVILS DICIPLES (sic). Or the Pepsi Generation family of six riding Hondas on the beach single file according to size, like baby ducks.

To be sure, many of the spectators seemed something less than confirmed believers in motherhood and apple pie, but for the most part the rowdy gangs that once scarred motorcycling's image have become civilized, if not perfectly mannered. Some motels actually open their doors to the "clubs," one Daytona resident pointed out, indicating a sign at the Royal Beach Hotel that said WELCOME LOW RATES.

Main Street, in particular the corner by the Pink Pussycat Topless Bar, fairly glittered with motorcycle mania, the principal organized social event being a chopper show on Saturday sponsored by the Rathole Head Shop.

But choppers have little in common with road-race machines, and their recumbent riders have even less in common with road racers. To illustrate the difference, sit down and put your elbows on your knees and your chin on a line with your elbows—that's a road-racer's crouch. In just such a fetal embrace of his machinery a rider screams around Daytona's banking at 180 mph, tucked below a fiber-glass fairing that reduces air drag. If he could hear anything over the 11,000-rpm wail filling his helmet, it would be the whoof-whoof exploding from his own body, the sound of his breath being squished out as his chest smacks against the gas tank with every ripple on the track.

Wind whips into his helmet and blows his eyeballs to the back of their sockets. When he accelerates on the twisting infield portion of the 3.87-mile circuit, his body is snapped back so suddenly it feels as if an offensive guard is using him for a blocking dummy. When he decelerates he must use both hands and both feet to control the clutch and gearshift and throttle and brakes, an elaborately coordinated effort that would make a rock drummer envious. When he corners, he moves his knees and elbows and shoulders and hips into a precise position, like a ballet dancer.

Kenny Roberts, the fast qualifier at 111.456 mph, has the most spectacular style; he literally feels his way through corners with his inside knee. When the knee drags on the ground he knows he's leaned his bike over far enough. Before each race he wraps tape across the padded knee patches on his leathers; by the end of the race the tape is often shaved away.

Motorcycle racers have nightmares over something they call "tank slappers," which occur when the severe cornering forces on the suspension trigger a reaction that causes the bike to begin flexing and whipping and wobbling as it tries to shake its rider off. Every rider has a favorite tank-slapper tale. Sometimes they tell them from the hospital.

Take Gary Nixon or Barry Sheene. Nixon, a 5'7", 140-pound, square-jawed redhead from Cockeysville, Md. and a two-time national champion, represents what the American motorcycle racer is all about: guts and gristle. In 1967 he won his first national championship, but only after riding the season's final race with a broken thumb that was swollen so badly he could not twist the throttle. He simply rigged the throttle so it stayed open by itself and finished second.

The next-to-last time Nixon raced a motorcycle before the 200, the engine seized, and he crashed, shattering both arms and an ankle. He had been racing in Japan and they shipped him home in a wheelchair. That was three operations and nearly two years ago. The muscles in his left arm are still weak.

Sheene is from Wisbech, England and is European racing's glamour boy, a role he revels in—he borrowed a Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow from the Florida distributor for speedweek and drove it walking distances simply to be seen. High-roller image aside, two days before the race Sheene flew to Miami to see if a specialist could loosen up his shattered knee. For the race, Sheene attached an elastic cord from his hip to his heel to force his leg to stay nestled against his bike.

Sheene's knee injury had nothing to do with the crash by which most Daytona fans remember him, a horrendous 165-mph tumble caused by a blown tire in practice last year. He bounced and flopped and scraped and crunched for 300 yards down the front straight, finally rolling to a stop in Turn One with a broken femur (which now contains a steel pin inserted through his buttock), among other broken bones, and considerably less skin.

In last week's 200, Nixon rode a Kawasaki and Sheene a Suzuki, underdogs against the four-cylinder, water-cooled, 750-cc Yamahas. Yamahas filled the five-man front row; after Roberts came Steve Baker of Bellingham, Wash., who finished second a year ago; Japan's Hideo (Kamikaze) Kanaya; Venezuela's 20-year-old darling and 350-cc world champion, Johnny Cecotto; and Skip Aksland, a 20-year-old who is Roberts' protégé—and proud of it, he will add.

Missing from the top qualifiers was the current national champion, Gary Scott. Last year he rode for the Harley-Davidson factory and his championship came on the strength of his dirt-track performances, but H-D doesn't make a competitive road racer. That and other frustrations caused Scott to leave Harley-Davidson, and at Daytona he, too, was on a Yamaha. Which didn't end his frustrations. After a practice crash Saturday in the chicane—a quick left-right-left turn sandwiched on the backstraight to reduce the motorcycles' top speeds on the banking—Scott sat out the 200 with his broken left hand in a cast.

Scott's Yamaha was a private entry, which made him no different from the rest of the field save three of the top five qualifiers. Those three—Roberts, Kanaya and Baker—were the only riders in the race supplied by the Yamaha factory with bikes having special lightweight frames.

Not even defending champion Gene Romero, a "privateer," had received such largesse. However, Romero's sponsor was the best: Don Vesco, who holds the land-speed record for motorcycles at 281.702 mph. Vesco prepared two other machines, for Pat Evans, a 20-year-old veteran of seven years of road racing, and Phil Read, an Englishman who has won seven world championships.

Romero is fondly remembered for his infamous performance in the 1974 Superstars. The chubby, chain-smoking Chicano nicknamed Burrito didn't score a single point. "My body is junk," he said. "Me against those athletes was like racing a Volkswagen against a Corvette. If I had scored a point it would have been an upset."

The race itself was almost an upset; overdog Yamaha won but it was a close call. In the early going everything went according to form with Roberts and Cecotto appearing to have their own race for first place and Kanaya guarding the back door in third. But on the 33rd of the 52 laps Roberts slowed with a worn rear tire. Nine laps from the end, the tire blew apart in the backstraight chicane, throwing Roberts' bike into a horrifying slide. Somehow he managed to wobble back into the pits. Kanaya's rear tire had gone flat four laps earlier, which raised the question: Would the young Venezuelan's tire survive? Trailing Cecotto, but by more than a full lap, was the 35-year-old Nixon, powering his slower Kawasaki with little more than courage, himself being chased by sixth-fastest-qualifier Pat Hennen of San Mateo, Calif, on a Suzuki.

Cecotto's tire did hold together—by a shred. His crew waved him in with three laps remaining to check it, but Cecotto ignored their signal and arrived at victory lane with the win for Yamaha and a tire showing almost as much fabric as rubber.

Last year Cecotto had been a sensation at Daytona when he finished third after starting dead last on the grid. Everyone said he would have won if he had gotten a decent start. It seems they may have been right.

TWO PHOTOSKenny Roberts (above) leaned and led, but in the end young Johnny Cecotto stood in victory lane.