There was a time when motorcycle racers were as rowdy as they were hardy, given to shenanigans that caused decent folks to nail boards over their windows, send the women and children to Grandma's and hide the dog in the garage when the racers came to town. But today tens of thousands of those same decent citizens crowd into such places as the Los Angeles Coliseum to watch motocross races, and politicians compose proclamations dedicating entire weeks to the sport of motorcycle racing. The riders are changed men.
Well, most of them are. There is one bunch that remains fiercely anachronistic: the hillclimbers. If stock-car drivers think sports-car drivers are sissies, they must love professional hillclimbers. Ask a motorcycle hillclimber what a Gucci loafer is and the odds are he'll guess it's a lazy Italian. There aren't many hillclimbers under the age of 35; they are wiry ol' boys who munch Red Man, and what they don't swallow they spit on the hill in defiance. Many let the straps of their helmets dangle at their jaws and wear long-sleeved jerseys instead of protective leather jackets. Their bikes have orange flames painted on the gas tanks and some even have been given names, like The Midnight Ghost. The lingo runs to talk like "he ain't gettin' nuff gription with his tars," and the riders refer to each other as "good runners" and "top point-getters." They arrive at each event on a Saturday evening, towing their bikes on home-built trailers behind 1969 Caddies and the like, drink all night, grab a couple of hours sleep in the back seat, and wake up when the spectators start arriving and the PA system begins blaring something like God's Gonna Get' cha (For That).
The American Motorcycle Association National Championship Hillclimb is by far the richest of the year; it attracts the 30 best riders and the largest audience. This year it will be held at Mount Garfield near Muskegon, Mich., on Aug. 1. Last summer the site was Jefferson, Pa., a hinterlands town not far from Hanover, where some of the world's fastest standardbreds are trained. Chief of the four-person Jefferson police force is a bushy-browed, gentleman of Pennsylvania Dutch heritage, short of hair and wide of girth.
"Biggest trouble we ever had was when 18 of them got to racing their cycles the wrong direction around the roundabout in the town square," says the Chief. "Didn't want to but had to bust 'em; we don't even let the townfolk do that."
July 4, 1976
The rest of the AMA circuit is a long-running theater of nostalgia, held over for years in towns named Egypt, East Palestine and such. It consists of about 18 events through the summer, most of them in the East. The average purse is a paltry $1,500, and there is little sponsorship or contingency money; hillclimbing is earthy, not glamorous.
Fittingly the hillclimb rulebook is a thin one. In fact, the only rule that counts for much is the one that defines a rider as being officially in control of his motorcycle if he reaches the finish line with at least one hand still on the handlebars. Notice that this rule does not require both hands to be on the bars, nor does it mention feet, seat or any other part of the anatomy that is generally considered helpful in controlling a motorcycle. It does not matter in the least where the rest of a rider's body may be when the motorcycle reaches the top of the hill. The rule tells a lot about the sport.
Hillclimbing is no more of a race than pole vaulting. The competitors climb the hill one at a time, timed by clock, and if nobody can reach the top the winner is the man who comes closest in his three attempts. They start from a rut at the bottom of the hill, and each rider has his own idea about how long and deep the rut should be to provide the most traction. Shaping this take-off point is a ritual; the riders call it "farming for turnips." A rider will pick and shovel the rut, and kick and scratch at it with the heel of his boot; he will study it like a golfer lining up a putt. When he is finally satisfied that it is the proper shape, he will back his machine into the rut and, often with a heavy sigh, lower his body onto the seat with the same gentle care a cowboy takes in mounting a bronco in the chute. For a moment he will sit motionless, staring almost straight up at the hill, trying to psych it out as if he is a fighter and it is his opponent, which is not far wrong. Then he reaches down and grabs a fistful of dirt and rubs it between his sweaty palms, and wraps a stringy piece of leather around one wrist. At the end of the leather is a kill switch: if—or more likely when—he crashes, the engine will be shut off as the leather is jerked away from the switch.
A crew member—usually a brother-in-law or a beer-drinking buddy—places a heavy boot on the bike's kick-starter, suspends his weight over the lever and jumps down with a powerful stroke. That the motion be confident is vital: a diffident kick will result in a backfire from the high-compression engine that can toss a man three feet into the air, clutching his twisted ankle in agony as he flies.
The engine fires to life with an unmuffled boom—not the sucking whine of a turbo Offy, or even the strident shriek of a Yamaha road racer, but a raw rumble that shakes the ground all the way to the top of the hill. The rider grips the handlebars, grits his teeth and squeezes the clutch lever with the fingers of his left hand. He snaps the bike into gear with his foot, twists the throttle full-on with his right hand, and wham! his left fingers snap open, the clutch lever springs out, and the bike is lost in a cloud of exploding earth as if a hand grenade had been dropped into the rut.
People standing near the starting line scatter. Spectators sitting at the bottom of the hill, often separated from the starting line by a wire fence like a batter's cage, protect themselves. Some turn their faces away and listen—they can tell from the sound how successful a run is—exposing the backs of their necks to the flying clumps of dirt and stones the size of golf balls. Some hide behind programs; some bury their faces in their hands and peek out between their fingers as the thundering brown cloud rolls up the hill. The cloud once knocked a spectator clean out at Everett, they say.
The folks at the top of the hill can see the very same cloud, only it is coming at them, hovering over the bike, chasing it along to the top.
Sometimes the cloud catches the bike. And the rider. Spectacular crashes are commonplace in hillclimbing and they usually come in the form of backflips that occur when a rider presses his precarious point of balance one notch beyond optimum traction. In order to get the most bite, a rider leans back and puts his weight on the rear wheel, but this often causes the front wheel to rise by inches, sometimes feet, especially if a man shifts his body rearward at the same moment he grabs a handful of throttle. As the front wheel lifts higher and higher, the rider knows that all he needs to do to bring it down is roll back the throttle, but, by gar, it's a race, and races aren't won by backing off. So he keeps the gas screwed on and leans forward instead, sometimes forward so far that his chin nearly rubs the front tire. But sometimes even this radical posture is not far enough and sometimes it's not soon enough. The bike keeps rising until it is nearly vertical, then whips over backward and lands upside down on the seat and handlebars. If the rider is fast enough and lucky enough he will be able to push himself away and won't be underneath the bike when it lands. A rider experienced at crashing—which is to say all but the greenest of hillclimbers—may even be able to land on his feet. If not, he might become part of a thrashing maelstrom of steel and bones and rubber and flesh tumbling to the bottom of the hill.
Finally, everything stops bouncing. Invariably, incredibly, the damage is no more serious than bruises and dents. It is difficult to decide which is steelier, the men or the machines.
The Rescue Squad, a team of six to eight beefy men called "hookers" stationed on the side of the hill, loop a thick rope around a fallen bike and lower it to the bottom. It also is their seemingly suicidal assignment to grab an unmounted machine if it should hurtle toward the spectators. At Muskegon's Mount Garfield hill there is a mechanical hooker resembling a J-bar ski lift, powered by what's left of a '27 Chevy—a rusting junkyard refugee that lives in a concrete shed at the top of the hill. A thick steel cable extends from the shed to the base of the hill, and the hook prowls up and down the cable, searching for battered bikes. So far, no riders have had to be given a lift down on the hook.
A good hill is at least 100 yards long, with an inclination of about 60 degrees, increasing in steepness near the top. It is virtually impossible for a person simply to walk up such a hill unless he has some Sherpa blood in him; he must climb up by gripping loose boulders churned from the ground by the bikes, or by grabbing stray clumps of weed if the hill has any vegetation at all. The barren Chillicothe, Ohio, hill is a 400-foot pile of loose shale, and the infamous one at East Palestine in that same state has tiny but treacherous rock ledges that trip the bikes. East Palestine used to claim more victims than any three other hills on the circuit put together until an even more vicious rise known as the Widowmaker was included on the AMA calendar.
Erosion and constant climbing wear the hills down and make them less challenging, but the local motorcycle clubs have ways of overcoming this. They may add ripples, mounds or ditches to the hill to cause the bikes to lose momentum or, as the White Rose Motorcycle Club is doing with the Jefferson hill, they can build it higher. Local contractors deposit dirt and assorted waste at the top. Club members diligently filter the garbage from the fill and pile the dirt above the finish line. By 1980 they hope to have a course 100 feet longer and as steep as they can make it, always keeping in mind the peril of landslides.
If all else fails, a club can simply move its event, which is what Bee's Motorcycle Club of Salt Lake City has done. They are sponsors of the infamous Widow-maker. It has long been reputed to be the most evil hill of them all. It was nine years before a man reached the top of the 600-foot Widowmaker I. But then too many others followed him, so in 1973 Bee's members found a 1,500-foot monster and made it the new Widowmaker. For two years this hill stood in defiance of the 1,200 riders who attempted to best it, in fact none had even made it over halfway. Then this April, Widowmaker II finally yielded—to a single rider.
Even the peaks of the smaller Eastern hills offer quite a view. The Muskegon hill overlooks Lake Michigan and part of the city. Cement steps are built into its face, so hiking to the top is relatively easy and, before it was barred to the public, townspeople used to like to go up there and fantasize about being hillclimbers. A story is told that one young lad went a step beyond: late one night, after he closed the town tavern, he tried to drive his '52 Plymouth to the top. He made a running start, shifted to second and wound the hapless old Mopar out, but he didn't get 10 feet beyond the starting line. At least not up. He did manage to drive himself a few feet into the face of the hill.
The Jefferson hill is so high and so lonely that it seems to need a sign at the top saying Lovers Leap. There is nothing above it but sky and silence, nothing below it but trees with birds flitting between them, across the narrow, rocky, dirt trail up the face. From the bottom the hill seems even steeper; it is difficult to imagine any vehicle, even a Caterpillar, climbing to the top.
Hillclimb bikes are useless for anything but scratching up the face of a cliff. The special frames are longer and lower than those on dirt bikes, because a long wheelbase and low center of gravity help keep a bike on the ground. The brakes are minimal, because the only time a rider needs to stop is when he reaches the top. But even that can be dodgy. Some hills are not much wider at the top than the length of the bike. It is hard to know if a rider is kidding or not when he says the scary part of hillclimbing is not in getting to the top but in keeping from falling over the other side.
The engines of the machines displace 750 cubic centimeters, although side-valve engines may be as big as 1,200 cc. (There are next to none of these, however, for most are World War II surplus Harley-Davidsons of the sort advertised in the back of comic books, and not even hillclimbers are that attached to the past.) The cycles burn a mixture of alcohol and nitromethane, and the best are fuel-injected. The rear tire is usually a wide but worn road tire; the bikes get their traction from chains wrapped around the tires, like snow chains on an automobile.
Most of the hillclimb machines are powered by obsolete English BSA and Triumph twin-cylinder engines or vintage Harley-Davidsons. A hillclimb is about the only place apart from an antique motorcycle show where one can see such beloved models as the Indian, a marque that died nearly a quarter-century ago. Modern engines are creeping onto the hills very slowly; new equipment costs money, and hillclimbers just don't have it.
One super machine on the AMA circuit belongs to the grand national champion, Terry Kinzer, of Allen, Ky. It is the most powerful and expensive bike in hillclimb history, a 375-pound red, white and blue Honda worth some $10,000—about three times as much as the average hillclimb bike. The four-cylinder, fuel-injected engine sounds as mellifluous as a Formula I Ferrari, as well it might; it produces about 150 horsepower which gives it close to the same power-to-weight ratio as a Formula I car.
The trouble with Kinzer's bike is it has maybe too much horsepower. Most of last season he struggled to make the beast go up the hills instead of across them sideways. "Sometimes the thing is just too much of a pawrhouse," he said after crashing at Jefferson on his final attempt. "I just twist the throttle wide open and wind that sucker up to about 10 grand, close my eyes and drop the clutch, and it goes whump-whump and I'm either at the top of the hill or on my fanny."
Kinzer is a burly boy who grew up in the Kentucky coalfields and now drills for gas, water and oil for a living. His family is hillclimbing's version of the Pettys of stock-car racing. At every hillclimb the Kinzer contingent includes Terry's 4-year-old daughter, his wife, his brother Jerry, who is also a top hillclimb rider, his mother-in-law, his mother, who runs a Honda shop back home, and his father, the head tuner on the team. Plus a goodly number of fans who faithfully follow him to the climbs.
Unlike many of his competitors who shun protective clothing, Kinzer wears shin guards and shoulder pads and a full-coverage helmet with the strap fastened, possibly because he has more to get injured—he weighs a sturdy 230 pounds. He stokes up for a race with a breakfast of a few fried eggs, a pile of bacon, and muffins spread thick with Smucker's blackberry jam. But maybe he likes the extra padding simply because he tries harder than anyone else, and has frequent occasion to take advantage of it. He has been known to virtually throw his machine across the top of a hill, flip into a wheelie that sends him over backwards, jump up after the horrific tumble, grab his thick arms and squat legs and bullish neck and give them a tug and a twist and a pull, and shout down the hill to the spectators at the bottom, "Lookee here! I ain't broken! Haw!"
"Only thing that's ever been hurt hill-climbing is my feelings," Kinzer says. "That happens every time one of them other rascals goes up quicker."
At the head of Kinzer's list of rascals is a likable fellow named B. Doyle Disbennet, who is sometimes referred to on hillclimb programs as a "frog hunter, deer rider, squirrel shooter and Indian turnip farmer from Las Vegas, Columbus, Laurelville, Ohio, and Heaven knows where else." Right now he owns a bar in Lancaster, Ohio. He calls it the Orange Carpet Lounge. In 1974 he edged Kinzer by one-tenth of a second to win the National Championship Hillclimb in Muskegon, and he lost the season championship to Kinzer by only seven points that year. (Last year he barely made it to the championship at Jefferson because he had to work late in the Orange Carpet the night before he left, and the drive to Jefferson with 10 other people packed into a small motor home was tiring.)
Disbennet's trademark used to be a white shirt, but he doesn't wear the shirt anymore because a new rule requires a rider to have his name and number on his back, and Disbennet's 2-year-old shirt still has No. 1 on it from the last year he won the National Championship Hillclimb. "If I'm ever No. 1 again, I'll break it out again," he says.
An intrepid gentleman named Beese Wendt helped build the Jefferson hill, and holds the record for climbing it. His given name is Truman, but years ago the other riders tagged him with Beese (Bee-zee), sort of short for BSA, because he was fighting faithful to his trusty BSA bike. It is a classic 1949 Vincent, painted bright purple, although Beese swears the aerosol can said burgundy. For Beese Wendt to ride a purple Vincent at Jefferson is akin to Buddy Baker driving a flathead Ford with fender skirts and a Continental kit at Darlington.
Despite years of hillclimbing, Beese's bones are intact. "Got a lot of bruises, and once I hit that darn concrete shed at the top of the Muskegon hill and tore all the cart-ridges out of one of my knees, but that's all that's ever been hurt bad," he says.
"But I don't know," he adds reflectively. "Last year was like all the others. I traveled 10,000 miles, and all I got is a car that's wore out, a bike that's wore out and a body that's wore out. I just don't know...."
The men who race hillclimb motorcycles, men like Terry Kinzer and Doyle Disbennet and Beese Wendt—and Earl Bowlby and Lou Gerencer and Conley Newsome, to mention three more—are heroes of their kind. They are not driven by macho egos; it is the spirit of a simpler past that draws them to these hills and puts a patina of determination over their eyes as they look toward the top. As long as they keep churning upward, that spirit will be present.