10 November 2011

Motorcycle Road Racing

March of 1971-
I had just bought my new
500cc Kawasaki, so it was just natural I'd be rooting for Kaw riders. Daytona was just five or so hours away and I had never been to "Bike Week". I mounted my new bike and headed South out of Savannah on I-95.

If you like motorcycles, Daytona Bike Week is nearly heaven. I've never been to Sturgis so I cannot compare the two, but my image of Sturgis is that it is mostly a Harley-Davidson event.
Daytona is different. Sure, there are plenty of Harleys there but that Saturday night, standing on a street corner oogling the bikes as they stopped at the traffic signal, I saw just about every motorcycle made to be ridden on the street, including the one and only
Munch Mammoth I have ever seen in person... one of the first motorcycles ever built with an engine designed for an automobile.

Sunday morning dawned and the weather was perfect. I got to the track early and was amazed at what I saw...
The speed of the bikes was just unbelievable. They were hitting almost 200 m.p.h. on the banked part of the track, then they had to brake heavily to slow and enter the twisty infield portion of the course. (Just a few years after my visit the bikes had gotten so fast that tires could not be made to withstand the forces put on them, so a chicane was installed in the middle of the backstretch to slow the bikes down.)

Other Kaw riders I had talked to were buzzing about this rookie-expert Kawasaki rider- Rusty Bradley. He was fast. He had a good ride. He was someone I needed to watch.
Most of the Kawasakis were painted Lime Green. I picked him out... number 64.

There were so many bikes competing in the race they started them in two waves...
The fastest group of about twenty roared off, then a few seconds later the second group followed. I watched in awe as Rusty passed several machines on the back side of the track, then came down the front straight where he'd need to clamp on the binders in order to make the left turn into the infield.
I still don't know for sure what happened.
He fell.
Right in front of me.
Still traveling at about 150 m.p.h.
It was horrible. He log-rolled, over and over and over. His arm would flail out until the weight of his body would bear down on it and it would fold under him just as the other arm would get free and would flail out.
It seemed he rolled forever before coming to a stop. Then he laid there lifeless. To the guy
I had befriended in the seat next to mine I said, "He's dead".

They waited until the end of the race to announce what I already knew...
Rusty was gone.

To me, motorcycle road racing is the most beautiful, dangerous sport in the world. Unlike car racing, the riders are exposed so you can see how they manipulate their machines to make them do what they have to do...
Hang their butts off the machine to the left or right to lower the center of gravity so the bikes can reach a lean angle (and at a speed) that just seems impossible. On the straights, they tuck down behind the windshield making themselves as small as they can in order to reduce drag. Then approaching a turn they sit upright to catch the wind on their chest to provide an aerodynamic assist to the brakes.
It's a gorgeous ballet.

Two weeks ago, the same weekend Dan Wheldon was killed at Las Vegas, a young man named
Marco Simoncelli fell during the Moto GP race in Sepang, Malaysia and was struck by two other riders. He had terrible head, neck, and other injuries and did not survive.
The video of the accident is hard to watch.
It took me back to 1971 and made me think of

Motorcycle road racing is a beautiful thing to watch.
And I cannot deny it...
Part of my fascination with it is because it is SO dangerous.
And, like so many things in life, those who live "out on the edge" sometimes pay the heavy toll.

But they come back the next week, suit up in their protective gear, and go try to extend the envelope once again.

And I'll be watching and enjoying, knowing how hard it is to do what they make look so easy.


Brady Steffl said...


It's a microcosm of the motorcycle world. You get on that machine and take a huge risk, racers take a real big one. But - you do it because of what you get out of it, you'd never do it if it were as boring as riding in a car. Can't explain it to people who've never done it.

Behind Bars - Motorcycles and Life

Old NFO said...

Excellent post Sir! And it does take a special person to race motorcycles!

Capt. Schmoe said...

I am assuming that your '71 500 was a Mach III triple. What a beast! My buddy Gordy had a 500, Bob the Slob had a 750 triple (a real brutal beast) David had a KH400 Triple and another kid had a KH 250. I was on a Yamaha RD-350. I still miss the stench of Bel-Ray on warm spring days.

All of those bikes had powerful motors and didn't handle or stop worth crap by today's standards.

I think that the same thing went for the bikes on the track. Though they were far better set-ups than we had on the street, by today's standards they didn't turn or stop as well. We are probably lucky we didn't lose more.

Thanks for the post.

Greybeard said...

On my R&R to Sidney I went to the local Kawasaki dealership to just look at this two-stroke triple that had just come out, Schmoe. Funny, the guy that owned the dealership there wasn't sure he'd sell many of 'em because fuel was "dear" in Australia and the 500cc triple used a bunch of it.
I got home two months later and almost immediately bought one. When the new triples came out next year with improved electronic ignition, I traded for a new one. When the 750 triples came out a year after that I traded for one of those. You're quite right, they were evil handling things, good only for going EXTREMELY fast in a straight line. (I called mine "the fastest unicycle in the world" in first and second gear.)

Kawasakis on the track driven by guys like Yvon DuHamel and Gary Nixon would lose ground in the infield twisties due to their poor handling characteristics, but would blow EVERYTHING into the weeds on the long straights.
They were amazing to watch.

psyklik said...


On my way home from the St. Louis AMTC, a month ago I thought of some comparisons between the Air Medical Industry and the IndyCar World.
Earlier that morning I attended old flight schoolmate, Randy Mains’ speech where he talked of the historical conflict between the pilots (& somewhat the medcrew) and the many factions and cultures (operators, hospitals, various alphabet groups) within the air medical community concerning safety.

Dan Wheldon’s death over that weekend caused me to think of some similarities to the various factions of the Indy world (drivers, racing teams, speedway owners and promoters).

We’ve come a long way in and accomplished much in air medical since we started many moons ago. Though, as Randy pointed out, there’s still much to be done.
~ psyklik

Bloviating Zeppelin said...

OMG, the Munch Mammoth! I had SO forgotten!

I had a Benelli Seis a number of years ago. NO ONE remembers those, but at the time it was HUGE for me!

I also had a Kawasaki Mach IV Triple, 750! Damn, I wish I had ALL of them now.


Bluetooth Motorcycle Helmets said...

All of those bikes had powerful motors and didn't handle or stop worth crap by today's standards.