There is a malady that strikes professional motorcycle racers called plate fever. When a man catches it, he has been known to beat up his friends. He makes dubious deals. He scoffs at security. He races when he should be in traction. And he rides as if the crash walls were made of cardboard.
There is only one thing that relieves the fever, and that is a 10"-by-12" white plastic plate with a big black No. 1 on it. To get it, a man has to be No. 1, the national motorcycle champion.
In 1976 Gary Scott, a 24-year-old from Springfield, Ohio, carried the plate on the front of his motorcycle. Few men had ever had the fever as bad as Scott; it didn't break for four years. A lot of people were glad to see him finally get rid of it. He deserved the championship, they agreed.
He'll have the fever again next year. A 19-year-old from Flint, Mich. named Jay Springsteen stole the plate from Scott this year and became the new No. 1, the second youngest ever. Springsteen had had some advice on how to cure the fever from three-time national champion Bart Markel, his neighbor, who has won 28 national motorcycle races, more than any man in history.
November 8, 1976
The American Motorcyclist Association national championship was decided this year in a 28-race series, 24 of which were dirt-track races. By far the most spectacular dirt-track events are those contested on one-mile ovals. Springsteen won four of the six miles and finished second in the other two. He makes spectators swallow their hearts with his moves on the big tracks. He wails down the straight on his 750cc Harley-Davidson at 140 mph, his right hand on the throttle, at ear level because his chin is on the gas tank, his left hand reaching down to the front fork at knee level and clutching a stubby grip about the size of a half-smoked White Owl. When he approaches a turn he abruptly sits up and moves his left hand back to the handlebars. Gently he taps the rear brake with his right foot—there is no front brake—so the back of his bike slides around and violently pitches the machine to the left, leaning it over so far the engine sometimes scuffs along in the dirt. He slides sideways at nearly 100 mph, his left leg stuck out as far as he can stretch it, his steel shoe skimming over the dirt and acting as an outrigger. Still drifting toward the wall, he cracks open the throttle and snaps his left foot back up on the peg and grabs that White Owl down by his knee and slaps his chest back on the gas tank, then finally comes out of the turn and slingshots down the straight. Springsteen does this a lot, sometimes between two other riders doing the same thing, as often as not nudging—and being nudged by—the other riders' feet, elbows and handlebars.
Dirt-track racers are a completely different breed from, say, Indy drivers. When an Indy driver pulls onto the track he looks as if he's stifling a yawn; when a dirt-tracker pulls onto the track he looks as if he's stifling a scream.
Scott's situation throughout the past season was unprecedented. In 1975 he had been one of five Harley-Davidson factory riders. Then he had been on the other end, trying desperately to take the plate from Kenny Roberts, sole member of the Yamaha team. Since he was the only man on the team who had a strong chance for No. 1, Scott felt he rated the fastest Harley. He saw it as common sense: if Harley-Davidson wanted the national championship, they should throw their weight behind the man who could best win it for them.
But Dick O'Brien, Harley-Davidson's racing manager, didn't see it that way. O'Brien has an iron policy: no team orders, every man for himself, and may the best man win. Not only that, but Harley-Davidson didn't make a competitive road racer; Scott was forced to stay home from the road races while Roberts scored points.
Scott took the plate from Roberts anyhow. But after the season he and O'Brien still disagreed on a lot of things—including what Scott was worth for 1976—so Scott quit and became a champion without a factory contract, a privateer No. 1. The situation was unprofitable for both parties. A championship was of little value to a company that could hardly advertise the fact; Harley-Davidson probably lost hundreds of thousands in sales. Scott probably lost tens of thousands in endorsements.
Scott spent the winter preparing to defend his championship without a factory behind him. He bought his own bikes—or arranged deals for them—hired his own tuners and did a lot of the work on the bikes himself. For the one-mile races he wanted to use a Harley-Davidson XR750; after all, he had nothing against the motorcycle.
Then he tried to get racing parts for it. The Harley-Davidson racing department—which means Dick O'Brien, the racing manager for 19 years—refused to sell him the special cams and pushrods that it had developed. But there is an AMA rule meant to prevent such factory dominance of racing: the engine in any of the top three finishing bikes in a dirt race may be claimed by any competitor in that race for $3,500, and a road-race engine may be claimed for $4,000. So after the first mile of the season, won by Harley team rider Rex Beauchamp with Springsteen second and Scott third, Scott claimed the engine from Beau-champ's factory XR750 to get the special parts he needed. Observers at the claiming thought they were about to witness O'Brien strangle someone who at 5'6" and 130 pounds is nearly half a foot shorter, 50 pounds lighter and 30 years younger than himself.
Late in the season Scott did the same thing—but for a different reason—to Roberts after the Yamaha rider had won a road race at Riverside, Calif. Skip Aksland, a back-door member of the Yamaha team, had protested Scott, under orders from Pete Schick, Yamaha's manager. Schick thought Scott's one-lap-late start in a heat race (he hadn't heard the call to the starting line in the garage area) should have disqualified him from the main event. So Scott claimed Roberts' engine in retaliation, although the AMA disallowed Aksland's protest.
"Scott sure isn't trying to win any popularity contests this year," said one observer.
"No, he's not," came the reply. "He's trying to win the plate."
Most of what motivates Scott never shows; even on the racing circuit few people really know him. But, says one who does, "Gary could shoot you right between the eyes, shrug and walk away and never even think about it."
The AMA Pro Series has two legs. Scott won the first leg, with Springsteen and Roberts a slim six points behind. But Springsteen had been coming on strong. He won five of the series' last seven races, including three miles. His win at the Syracuse Mile was the fastest in AMA history, an average speed of 97.5 mph. Teammate Beauchamp, who finished second by an eyelash, protested the result. And Scott protested Roberts, who finished third, for rough riding.
Said Bill Boyce, the AMA's director of professional racing, "I thought the whole thing was a joke. A definite case of the pot calling the kettle black. Gary had been involved in three or four slambams this year."
"It's easy to be No. 2," said Scott, who knows after being No. 2 three years in a row and now again. "There's a big difference between No. 2 and No. 1, and when you start pushing for No. 1, it gets heavy. You can't afford to back off. Some of the riders understand because they've been there, but a lot of people don't.
"I won't knock someone down on purpose—I haven't got to that point yet—but if he's slowing me down I'll push him out of my way. I'll pass any way I can."
A lot of that sort of thing always occurs at the San Jose Mile, generally considered the most competitive race on the AMA circuit. This year it was also the last mile, and Springsteen broke the lap record by more than a second in qualifying. He also won the final, with Scott second.
The race will be remembered as much for Scott's performance as for Springsteen's, although Scott's came after the race when a season of frustrations was released in the rest room of a bar.
Bill Werner is one of the best tuners on the dirt-track circuit, and he knows what he's doing with an XR750. He is Springsteen's tuner. Last year he was Scott's tuner. Last year he was also Scott's friend. This year it was his job to help Springsteen take away Scott's plate. As Werner described it, "It wasn't even a fight. I was standing in front of the mirror combing my hair and the next thing I knew someone was flailing away at me." A row of black stitches on Werner's lip moved as he talked. "I can't say it surprises me. I've known Gary well for two years; I've seen him operate. He's like a light switch. Snap! He goes off.
"It was a disappointment. A tuner always thinks he has a special relationship with his rider. Pressure will do funny things to a guy.
"Maybe it wasn't even personal. Maybe Gary just wanted to say, 'Look, everybody, get off my back; I mean business!' Now I'm tuning for Springer and Springer's beating him; maybe he felt I should have quit at Harley-Davidson and stayed with him. Gary has been a lonely man this year."
Scott's version of the story is not much different, except for one thing. "Bill was going out of his way to torment me and rub it in after Springsteen won at San Jose," he said. "I just decided I wasn't gonna take that stuff. Everybody thinks I'm a bad guy, so I might as well be one."
Motorcycle dirt-track racing isn't like most other sports, but it is a lot like NASCAR stock-car racing in that it has its own code of ethics. The man who will do what it takes to win, no matter what, will be respected for it. There may not be much fondness for Scott on the dirt-track circuit, but there is a lot of respect.
Gene Romero is a former teammate of Scott's and was No. 1 in 1970. He is one of the men who "has been there and understands," as Scott says. Romero says, "I don't like the guy, but this year he flat astounded me. He started the season with his back against the wall and clawed his way out. You got to lean on guys to get the job done, put them in the fence if you have to, and that's what Scott did. He was a racer all the way. His problem was he not only burned his bridges, he blasted the banks. He'll never be able to go over the same ground again."
Scott was not completely without supporters. One of them is road racer Steve McLaughlin, who has his own reputation as being the most outspoken professional in motorcycling.
"I've known Gary for years," McLaughlin says. "He's a hardheaded little guy. Once he gets upset, he gets stubborn. This year he did a lot of rotten things because there was so much pressure on him. Understand, I don't defend his childishness; I just defend the guy's audacity in bucking Harley-Davidson. He was right last year. When you have a team, you should have team racing."
One thing everyone agrees on is that even though Scott didn't keep the plate, this season he rode better than he ever has. He raced bikes with assorted setups and different tuners, everything from an obsolescent English Triumph to the latest Yamaha road racer, and he supervised the mechanical work—and did most of the legwork—himself. Not even O'Brien begrudges Scott's effort this year. "I may not have been happy with his behavior, but I can't sell his riding short," the Harley racing manager says. "He had a point to prove and he rode hard and he rode good to prove it.
"I accepted the fact that Gary could win the plate up till the last race," O'Brien admits, "but what could I do about it? Naturally I knew if Gary had won, he would rub it in hard. I wasn't looking forward to that part of it."
Whenever Springsteen saunters by, O'Brien's eyes light up. He grabs the youngster in an affectionate headlock and says, "Boy, where you been? I been looking for you."
Damn right O'Brien had been looking for Springsteen. Even before Scott quit, O'Brien had made up his mind to hire the youngster. Springsteen is O'Brien's dream—any racing manager's dream. He does what he's told, smiles while he's doing it, never complains, never challenges orders—and he goes fast. Put a Big Mac in his hand, a clean T shirt on his back and a van with a tape deck over his head and he's in heaven. He's got everything he wants; he is so happy throwing a motorcycle sideways into a turn at 140 mph he'd do it for nothing. Springsteen is not going to go to O'Brien this winter, as Scott did last winter, and say, "Hey, I risk my life so your company can sell motorcycles, and I just won the national championship. I think I'm worth more to you than you're paying me."
"Springsteen is the easiest rider I've ever worked with," says Werner. "He hasn't discovered greed, power and lust."
"That's because he's not smart enough yet," cracked a bystander.
More likely, it's because he hasn't had time. This year was only his second in the expert class, and he still didn't have enough experience to have an expert license for 750cc point-paying road racing, not that it mattered much in the absence of a competitive 750cc Harley-Davidson road racer. He had been third, behind Scott and Roberts, his first year, which made him Rookie of the Year.
"He's just 19 years old and happy-go-lucky," says O'Brien. "He's as loose as a goose, concerned about nothing. If he wins, he wins, if he doesn't, he doesn't; he doesn't know what pressure is. It's almost unnatural; he goes as fast in practice as he does in the race. He's got the will to win. He's a full-out fighter to the flag. We don't see very many riders coming up through the ranks like Springer. He'll ride way out up against the fence, places where few men will."
Loose as a goose is an understatement. Springsteen's entire comment on the Scott situation was, "It's just Gary's way of goin' about it, I guess."
Same on the pressure: "It ain't no big thing. I just go out and go as fast as I can. I'm just out to have a good time. That's all I can say. I'm having fun."
Springsteen led the series into the season's final race, the Ascot half-mile in Gardena, Calif., but both Scott and Roberts still had a chance to win the plate. There was some talk that maybe the Harley-Davidson team would try a stop-Scott gambit. One man surrounded by three—two of the five factory riders were out for the season—and if they all were to crowd Scott at 100 mph, it could be fairly intimidating. But Scott wasn't worried. "There isn't one of them that's on a 'team,' " he said. "They're all out for themselves. They don't even like each other; they could never get together against me."
With 20 points at stake for first place, Roberts, 19 behind, had only a slim chance for the No. 1 plate. Scott, 12 back and a bullet at Ascot, formerly his home track, would be in great shape if Springsteen did not make the main event—say, if he were eliminated in one of the qualifying heat races.
Springsteen was following Beauchamp in practice, when Beauchamp lost control and weaved across the track. Springsteen nailed him from behind and flew over his own handlebars, face down in the dirt.
"I ran over and Springer was up and limping around, but acting kind of dingy," said Werner. "Springer said, 'I think my hand's broken.' I looked down at it and saw his little finger jammed into his palm—the right hand, his throttle hand. I told him it didn't look broken. 'Well, fix it then,' he said." Werner, a former wrestling coach, recalls, "I just gave 'er a jerk and it popped back into place."
Springsteen was woozy and complained that his vision was blurry, so he sat out the rest of practice and waited to be the very last rider to make his one-lap qualifying run. He qualified eighth fastest, which placed him right beside Scott for the start of a heat race. Scott got the jump off the grid and led into the first turn. But when he slowed down for the turn, Springsteen just kept his throttle wide open and drove around Scott on the outside—riding way up against the fence, where few men will. He came out of the turn in the lead and kept going to win the 10-lap heat by some 100 yards over Scott.
Springsteen and Scott were both on the front row for the main event, with the plate on the line. Springsteen's ankle and shoulder had begun to ache and his throttle hand was swelling fast.
"All you've got to do is finish seventh and we've got the plate," Werner told him. "Pace yourself and don't get into anything."
"I can't hang on to this motorcycle too tight but I'll do the best I can," replied Springsteen.
He led the first 14 laps, but was passed on the 15th by Alex Jorgensen. O'Brien and Werner were waving frantically at Springsteen and yelling, "Let Jorgensen go! Let him go!"
Two laps later, Springsteen passed Jorgensen and won the race, setting a track record; Scott was fourth and Roberts a distant 12th. It was Springsteen's seventh victory of the season, more than any rider since Joe Leonard in 1954.
"I knew I could go faster," said Springsteen, "so I said to myself, 'What the hell, I can win this thing.' "
"Phenomenal," said Werner. "The kid has got some style."
He had something else. All season long Springsteen had been saying, "If I win the plate, I win; if I don't, I don't. I'm just out there having fun." But on the night of the final race of the year, he was wired. Scott couldn't have beaten him if he had stolen his tires.
Not surprising. It has happened before and Gary Scott certainly could have recognized the symptoms. It may have taken all season, but Springsteen had finally caught a case of plate fever.