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A Slick Slide To The Top

June 07, 1982
June 07, 1982

Table of Contents
June 7, 1982

Indianapolis 500
NBA Playoffs
Holmes-Cooney
Slick Slide
Baseball
Movies
Golf
Boating
Caesars Palace
19th Hole: The Readers Take Over

A Slick Slide To The Top

Pete Hames may be only 17, but he is already mining the vein that only a talented few can find in dirt-track racing

The thing that drove Pete Hames into retirement was the never-ending nagging from his dad. "Don't stand there and tell me you don't feel like racing," Don Hames would growl, bending over so he could jaw at his son nose to nose. "Don't you want to win? No? No? Then you're wasting your time. And you're sure wasting mine." Nag, nag, nag. Finally, Pete just up and retired, walked away from motorcycle racing. He was five years old at the time.

This is an article from the June 7, 1982 issue Original Layout

That was in the summer of 1970. Pete had a Yamaha 60, a little bitty bike only about this high. At top speed, maybe 30 mph, it sounded as if it was powered by a gang of angry bumblebees. His dad had bought it when Pete was four—please note that Pete hadn't asked for it—and had plopped the kid down on it and sent him out on scrambles over hills and through gulches and in dirt-track races at places like Cycle Park and Indian Dunes near Los Angeles. The tots would roar around and around and around in a waist-high cloud of dust for perhaps four miles per event. There were horrendous skids and crashes. Some of the children would get up gamely and go on; some would dissolve into muddy tears of frustration and call for their mothers.

There were then—and are right now—hundreds of kiddies in just this situation in California and elsewhere around the country, tots in tailored leather racing suits and heavy crash helmets that look like big bubbles on the kids' heads and wobble loosely, forever slipping down over their eyes. They ride scaled-down motorcycles—real motorcycles, all right, but miniaturized. Most of the children are the victims of the Little League-parent syndrome carried to its farthest reach: Don Hames would push Pete out into the races and then stand around the infield with the other dads, drinking cans of beer from their coolers and telling each other outrageous lies about how their kid's bike was pure stock, right off the showroom floor, nothing added. Not true, of course. The daddies were secretly tweaking those little engines; hell, these guys would hop up toy Lionel trains. The prizes at stake were trophies, most of them teacup-size. But if a kid didn't win one, dad took it personally.

Talk about an edgy family situation: In those days, Pete represented Don Hames's last chance to have fun. Don had been a motorcycle racer in his youth. "I was an also-ran," he says now, but he has always been crazy about the sport. Don and Jo Ann Hames had two girls before Pete came along, Dawn Dee, now 22, and Lisa, 19, and Don tried to turn them into racers, with no luck. He bought a minibike for Dawn Dee, which she rejected, and then bought her a real, expensive, quarter-midget race car, just like A.J. Foyt had as a kid. But Dawn Dee wasn't having any of it.

It wasn't until Don backed off and got hold of his emotions that the family tension dissipated. But then Pete had quit motorcycle racing and scampered off to play baseball and flag football—football, for God's sake, how embarrassing—but Don determinedly kept quiet about it. And then, when Pete was eight, Don bought the kid another present. One more try. It would be better this time, Don vowed, much more fun. No more nagging, no pressure. "Look at this, Pete," he said. "It's a new Honda XR75. And Daddy's going to hop it up."

There are no more angry bumblebees—the sound has grown now into a high-pitched snarl that echoes off the foothills on this chill California night. A pack of motorcycles in full howl creates a weird and discomforting effect: The sound actually hurts the teeth, the way a dentist's high-speed drill does before it ever touches the tooth. There are 10 real racing bikes in this heat on the half-mile track at Corona Raceway, all skidding and jostling through the corners, canted sharply to the left and throwing up plate-size divots of wet red clay.

No. 87R is the one to watch. It's a Harley-Davidson XR750, one of only 600 built, an exotic, mean bike made for just one purpose, dirt-track racing. The Harley, a mix of brutal and strangely delicate parts, churns out perhaps 65 hp—"a goddamn rocket ship," says Don. It screams down the back straightaway at about 85 mph, and because of the poor lighting at Corona, it seems to flicker along as it goes, passing two, three, four other bikes. The rider throws it into a long slide at the corner, thrusting his left leg out for support. And then, straightening up coming off the curve, he half rises from the seat and yanks up and back on the handlebars. The motorcycle rears up in the beginning of a wheelie and then slams down with an even louder snarl, shooting forward. "He does that to force weight onto the rear wheel," says Don. "It loads up the power instantly and shoots the bike ahead."

There's nothing smooth about any of this. It would be different on pavement, but racing at this speed on unevenly graded dirt seems to give the bike a life of its own. No. 87R bucks and fights the rider, and he controls it with hard, punching moves. He's wearing a two-pound, strap-on steel sole on his left boot, slightly turned up at the toe, and when he drags it along in the turns like an outrigger, it occasionally fires sparks.

Once more around and the heat is over, and No. 87R, the easy winner, comes rumbling into the infield. The rider, skinny and caved in at the stomach, lifts off his helmet and shakes his head, creating, in this dim light, an explosion of golden ringlets. He gives his dad a long, knowing look, of a secret shared. Then they break into wide grins.

So here's Pete Eugene Hames: retired at five, reactivated at eight, now 17 years old. He's a junior in high school, which has absolutely no bearing on anything that will follow here; he's barely hanging on at Simi Valley High, doing just well enough to graduate next year and then that's it with school forever. More important now, to Pete and all the people starting to surround him, he's a full-blown professional dirt-track racer. He's now on a schedule, with one season to go as a so-called Junior Pro, the last round before he gets his Expert license and a shot at all of the big stuff he wants. What Pete wants, in order, are the Grand National Championship in dirt-track racing and then the world road-racing title.

It's eminently possible that he'll get them. This isn't a sort of gut-feeling prediction, as it might have been for someone spotting a young Cassius Clay in the 1960 Olympics. Motorcycle racing is vastly different from other sports, with very few subtleties. It doesn't treat its young as some other sports do. Youthful bike racers aren't expected to run fast and then train on a shoestring to run ever faster. Too many commercial forces are involved and too much money is at stake in motorcycle racing. When one considers that biking tots start competing practically before they're toilet trained, it's no wonder that the kiddie burnout rate is terrific. Inordinately few youngsters make it as far as Pete has—that is, to the doorstep of world-class starters. There are, among the current Junior Pros, Pete Hames, Matt Rozowicz, 17, from New York, and Danny Ingram, also 17, from Indiana; the three of them, in effect, make up the dirt track class of 1982. There are no Cinderella stories in motorcycling, which in an odd way lends the sport a certain gritty purity. If it looks as if the kid has it, he's helped; a sort of benign fix is put in. A bit at first—like a helmet or gloves, for example—and if the recipient reciprocates by running still faster, he's given a bit more. Gradually things start to cling to him. Sponsors appear, in small ways at first, perhaps in the form of someone who can tune the kid's bikes better than dad does. Then "pieces" are offered: tail pipes, tires, leathers. Soon wheels and whole bikes appear, and the operation takes on shine. Factories send parts, the good stuff that will trickle into the normal commercial pipeline at some later date; appearance money is paid. Finally, the kid is left with only one thing to do: race on ever superior bikes maintained by ever more crafty experts and engineers. All this equipment and skill is far more expensive than anything his lesser competitors, the ones who aren't cut in on the goodies, can afford. Paul Dean, editorial director of Cycle Guide magazine, calls it "the creative way of buying people."

And Pete has many of these things: He's here at Corona Raceway on this damp February night with not one but three glistening bikes—a 250 Kawasaki, a Yamaha 500 and the fearsome Harley—a 17-year-old kid, whose Dad works in heavy construction, with more than $11,000 worth of rolling stock. He has a bike for all occasions; the night's total purse is $1,500, and Hames will get $550 of it, winning practically everything on the program. "If there ever was a natural racer, Pete's it," says Elaine Jones, the race director. "He's really aggressive, and that's what it takes on dirt. He's not afraid to bang the bars on that bike."

A final tip-off to what the future might hold comes from someone in the background—the shadowy Steve Storz, legendary in the sport as a winning tuner and crew chief. He's presiding over this delicate transition in Pete's career. For 3½ years, until 1979, Storz engineered national championships for Harley riders—and now he's to Pete what Frankenstein was to the Monster. The soft-spoken Storz runs his own shop in Ventura, Calif. with no identifying sign on door or window. "I don't like drop-in trade and I won't work on street bikes," he says. Storz "built" Pete's Harley; he also maintains and sponsors it. It is said to be a wonder cycle, one like no other. Yet he stands to one side and shrugs as he says, "Sometimes the biggest performance secret of them all is the guy who's doing this..." and he holds out both hands as if gripping handlebars and twists his right hand sharply, zapping an imaginary throttle. "That's what does it."

If there really is such a thing as the California Kid Cool Culture look, this is it: Pete lives in faded jeans and a vast selection of motorcycle T shirts hanging loose on his 5'8", 130-pound frame. He has pale blue-green eyes and dark brows and his hair is bleached naturally and curled kinkily by chemicals; sometimes it seems there's not a straight-haired kid left on the West Coast. Pete drives his Pontiac Trans Am the one mile to and from school with the tape deck set on full, blasting out AC/DC's For Those About to Rock.

What, no motorcycle? A big, thudding Sportster maybe, with studded leather saddlebags and chromed pipes and a buddy seat? Or maybe a café racer with bulbous fairing and dual handlebars?

Never, never. Serious riders regard street racers as far too dangerous—"You're right out there exposed to all those maniacs"—and the cult cyclists with their zippered jackets and chains are an entirely different breed; aliens.

Nor does motocross racing hold any fascination for Pete. It's too slow and too tame; what seem to be perilous leaps and slides through gullies are just so much acrobatics. Besides, motocross bikes are strictly off-the-shelf machines; anyone can walk into any dealer, buy one, go racing and have a fair chance of staying with the leaders.

What really counts for Pete is speed on a lean, one-of-a-kind bike. "Man, you've got to love it," he says. "I mean, like you start out in a pack, see, and you've got guys running over your leg and stuff on the getaway, but you can't pay any attention to it. You got to jump right into it. And then it's dangerous, because you're all running so close; sometimes we'll overlap elbows on the turns. And then you can fall off and get runned over by the whole field or you can hit someone else. But then you get it sorted out and you're gone, passing everybody. There ain't no groove on a dirt track, not really. If you can get around 'em on the high side, do it. Then you got to throw it in, get the whole bike sidewise in the turns. It's weird; you're riding this way and lookin' that way. And then..." He shrugs. "And then you come in and everybody gathers around you and it's neat."

It was the discovery of speed that did it for little Pete, of course. Some folks are born to go fast. Once he found that this was what Don had been leading up to back in those old days, father and son began forging a relationship that is now close and loving. "That ol' Pete, he just hates to lose," Don says. "I'm not mean to him anymore; he's mean enough to himself now."

Pete won the American Motorcyclist Association's Southern California district minibike championship in 1976, and then, advancing through the amateur classes, he won the national junior half-mile dirt-track title for the next three years in a row. In July 1980, Hames became the national amateur half-mile champion among 250-cc riders. His Novice Pro season last year stirred up a significant cloud of dust—he won most everything he entered and emerged second in the nation, missing out on first mostly because he didn't have the time to go tank-towning all around the circuit collecting more title points. The top spot went to Rozowicz, who is assuredly no slouch, but on the three occasions they showed up at the same track, Pete beat Matt every time.

Still, despite the sponsors' support that had started to come in, Don spent $20,000 on the 1981 campaign. "We've done without a whole lot of things so that Pete could go racing," he says, "and while we're glad to do it, this is about as far as we can go."

Here's the plan for this year: As a Junior Pro, 80 AMA "advancement" points away from becoming an Expert, Pete is qualified to ride 250-, 500-and the brute 750-cc bikes. The minute school is out this spring, he's gone—he'll load the three bikes into Don's big Dodge van and spend the entire summer barnstorming the dirt-track circuit. There are a ton of races on the schedule, with a sprinkling of major ones, and Pete plans to make a race a week, and more where possible. A buddy will go along to help: one guy driving the van across the vast Midwest, where most of the races are, and one guy curled up in back with the tires and tanks and tools. At the far end of all this lies the Junior Pro title and the future riches it promises.

And the riches are really rich. For a rookie expert pro, a factory sponsorship usually runs anywhere from $25,000 to $40,000 a year in salary—plus all the bikes he can use, a van to carry them, a crew to keep them running and contingency money—and he gets to keep all of his purses. And it goes up, up, up from there: Current 500-cc world champ Marco Lucchinelli, 28, of Italy, once a shipboard waiter and putative crooner, jumped from Suzuki to Honda after winning the title last year. The price to switch: a basic contract estimated at $390,000 and loaded with extras. And Kenny Roberts, 30, who sprang from precisely the same California dirt-track origins as Pete to become twice the Grand National and three times the world road-racing champion, is a millionaire and is constantly adding to his wealth; he is the highest-paid motorcycle rider in the world, at an estimated $1 million a year.

"These next two years, the pressure starts on Pete," says H.J. (Dusty) Behrman, a racer-promoter who hopes to handle Pete's career. "Just think! It all comes at once. The young champ suddenly discovers what it's like for someone to take him to dinner—and not at a Taco Bell, but out there with the real people. Sponsors lavish money on their riders and parade them around; lovely women want to meet them. At the top of this sport, you've got perhaps 20 guys who are 18 and 19 years old and they're making hundreds of thousands a year. They're like rock stars, except they've got more than flash."

But with all that comes the danger of the dread burnout. Maybe it's a case of too much too soon; more likely, it's a case of the kids not being ready for such sudden celebrity just for doing what they always wanted to do: go very fast. It's more than a little tough to make an adjustment from trying to remember the date of the Battle of Gettysburg to remembering the date the Ferrari you received as a bonus has to be brought in to have its oil changed. According to Behrman, most burnouts come in the rookie pro year. Indeed, he knows of several such cases, most recently and tragically, the one of a motocross rider who began making himself noticed at 13, turned pro at 16 and committed suicide at 21.

But there's a saving factor: Such emotional unsteadiness occurs more often in motocross than in dirt-track and road racing. In motocross the relative equality of the factory-sponsored bikes places the burden of winning more squarely on the rider. An outstanding rider can win on a mediocre bike; in dirt-track and road racing that just doesn't happen. If a mediocre rider has a bike that can do 185 mph tops on the straights at Daytona, the best rider in the world on a bike that can do 180 stands almost no chance—and everyone, including the team managers, knows it. There's also an opinion that motocrossers are a more sophisticated and thinking group than their dirt-track and road-racing counterparts, as witness the emotionally lumplike Lucchinelli and, most assuredly, the stolid Roberts.

"Racing is fun," says Pete, "but one of the funny things about it is that you can't break your concentration long enough to enjoy it. You can only enjoy a race looking back on it after it's all over." And he reached that most mature conclusion at 17, at the mere beginnings of the new season. The February opener against other top Junior Pros in Houston went both ways: He finished eighth in the short-track event and fourth in the feature, a bit disappointing, but still better than Rozowicz, who finished third in the first event and not at all in the other. Things improved greatly in March, when Pete used a two-week school vacation to take a swing through the South, where he won two of six dirt-track events and gained points in scratch heats and semis, to bring his AMA advancement-point total to 46. Now, midway through the season it stands at 95.

In seeking sponsors, Behrman wrote a fancy résumé for the kid and had it printed up. Right there, under "hobbies," it says: playwriting.

Playwriting?

"Oh, that," Pete says. "Well, we decided to leave it like that because it sort of makes me look smart. See, what happened was, when Dusty asked me what my hobby was, I said, 'Oh, I don't know, I like play-riding,' meaning riding my trail bike around. And...."

Never mind. Forget it, Pete. What really counts, as Storz says, is that twist of the right hand. Zap, zap, zap.

PHOTOPHOTOAwaiting the start of a heat, Hames ponders his move up to the Pro Expert circuit.PHOTOWith Hames handling the bike's throttle, Storz takes a dyno reading on his creation.PHOTOThis summer Pete won't be seeing much of Dawn Dee (standing, left), Lisa (right) or his mother, Jo Ann.PHOTODon has been behind Pete's racing from the start.PHOTOHames already has a lock on his career.