WhichBike? – October 1981
This was one of my all-time favourite RooRs, although TBH it now seems particularly dated and obscure subject matter-wise. It follows the absolutely greatest ride of my life from LA up Highway 101 to Laguna Seca for the AMA Grand National with six fellow hacks, including some real pros not mentioned here to save their (and my) embarrassment. It’s actually a fairly accurate if not extensive account of what followed, even if it reads now like that of a (very) poor man’s Hunter S. Thompson who, of course, was my one of my journo heroes at the time and not averse to a little motorcycle madness himself.
NOW WHAT’S EXPECTED OF THIS columnist is the jug of pythons he leaves in the closet when at all possible, i.e., always. Recently, though, stern advice reached me that a by-line behoves me to stick unequivocally to the subject in hand, specifically delineated as nuts, bolts, pre-load ratings, gravel rash, DoT intransigence and the numerous pints of real ale that constitute the only fringe topic permitted by the serious motorbicycle journals. Not entirely unsympathetic to this concept of biking as an exclusive male enclave of locker-room hubris and techno talk… hey, it’s fun to revel in the camaraderie of shared Yamaha gearbox failures and late-night speed wobbles… I nevertheless find myself unable to reinforce and condone tunnel vision just ’cause the economy of Peterborough is founded on it. On the other hand, from my point of view as an embittered pauper, perhaps I should own up to H.G. Wells’s dictum, “Moral indignation is jealousy with a halo.”
Humbled into a state of grovelling compliance by a combination of H.G’s cheap wisdom and an intolerant bank manager, I recently decided to return to some real grime-under-the-nails, straight-ahead motorcycle hackery. No longer would I stand accused of effete badinage comprehensive only to BMW owners and LJK Setright: it’s time to Get Real. And the mainline to the motorcycling artery that I now aspired to was Laguna Seca Raceway and Round 16 of the AMA Grand National Championship in all its pomp, circumstances and, above all, meticulous detail.
There was genuine inspiration at work here. In fact, the minutiae of lap times and grid positions are soaked up by the newsprint of gaudy, monosyllabic tabloids world-wide, and regurgitating yesterday’s papers for the benefit of monthly readers seems positively redundant. Yet few race reporters appear to have the time, or perhaps the creative inclination, to meld intuition and sensitive enquiry into the sort of post-event analysis that really explains why a man wins or loses a race. Anyone who has ever gotten a bike running balls-out along a fast deserted road and found instructions flowing effortlessly, even subconsciously from the brain to the hands, feet and torso in a giddy adrenalin crescendo that frequently leads you, and leads you happily, to the precipice of real danger, anyone who’s squandered fear on the edge of that reckless adventure must know something of the stuff of which road-racers are made.
And surely that sliver of shared experience whets the appetite for more? In such obviously physical spectator sports as football, boxing and even bar-room indulgences like snooker or darts, cause and effect are self-evident skills, whereas high-roller motor sport insulates its protagonists from their audience with fences and leather cocoons and confusing equations of speed and distance. It was my intention at Laguna Seca to add a vivid dimension to the fleeting spectacle of the tarmac chase by reporting what these stocky young gladiators actually felt about what they were doing … what goes on in a skilled professional’s mind when he’s sliding toward the Big Lunch at 170 per… whether the parameters of usable power and inertia bear even the remotest similarity to those by which we judge our humble efforts in the & commuter jungle or the Sunday afternoon show-off… what a seizure at 14,000rpm feels like… how they take their breakfast cereal? Such dumb idealism on my part.
Not one, not two, but four card-carrying roadrace reporters would accompany me. Well, actually two full-time pros girt in freebie leathers with their monikers plastered ostentatiously all over, and two somewhat tardier items: Hodenfield (Chris, loyal pal, early Bike co-conspirator and a truly great rock journalist – MW) on a scurvy GS1000 with a balding rear Metzeler and credentials furnished by a ‘family’ paper back east (on the lookout for a gore story, no doubt); and Gordon (Paul, laconic 2-stroke addict and another razor-sharp scribbler – MW), acting on 11th hour orders from, if you can grasp such a concept, ‘Canada’s leading motorcycle publication’, riding a Suzy 550 unwisely lent him by the aforementioned pros who thought he might ‘gently’ run it in before they set to work on it at the drag-strip. There was also Gordon’s wife, a mean pixie on his hot-rodded RD350, and someone called Belle Starr (My then girlfriend, and a real trouper – amazingly we’re still pals – MW), whose overtures to become our official photographer were cruelly exposed as a peculiar fraud when she produced an Instamatic as the tool of her trade!
Me? Well as luck would have it, telexes chattered across oceans and a Honda 750F emerged rather astonishingly from the American importer. All I needed then were paddock passes, photography passes, entry permits, parking permits and a snappy nylon paddock jacket on which to pin all this garbage… Hell, if you’re going to mingle inconspicuously with these chumps and file a real authoritative story, might as well wear the uniform, right? Calls to race headquarters two days before the 350 mile trip there informed me that I should’ve made a written application three years earlier. The exigencies of fast-moving global journalism impressed my lady informant not one 1tota. More telexes rattled from Which Bike? Central. A last desperate cable flew off to the Monterey nerve centre, but no honey-toned press aide called to reassure me that I was persona grata. Winging it was the only option.
After a 300 mile ride and a night in what laughingly claimed to be “Hollister’s newest and finest motel’, I was rudely awoken by I5 Mexicans bump-starting an ageing Pontiac the size and colour of a Nissen hut… middle-aged leather-boys who’d sneered at our motley attire as we’d shivered in from the mountains the night before broke the grev dawn with their revving, barely silenced multis. It was time to Go Racing… But not before a 25 mile detour into Monterey where a woman with too much make-up and a face full of sandwich sullenly claimed she knew nothing about me, my editor’s telexes or the rudiments of civility. At Laguna itself, a man with a gun forbade me to enter the press office until I showed him a press card and Hodenfield, who was up early and smug as hell with more labels hanging off him than a Woolworth’s Christmas tree, somehow oozed sufficient authority to usher me into the office without suffering a merciless beating. Inside, things got worse. A woman who looked like a professional wrestler sneered at me from behind a thin moustache and told me that (a) the telexes and cables were too late and to no avail, and (b) A woman who looked like a professional wrestler sneered at me from behind a thin moustache curtly pointed out that my proffered press card was two months out of date. “I have come 7,000 miles to cover this race,” I lied, as calmly as possible, “‘and a lot of English people are going to be disappointed if they don’t read my report.”
I don’t know whether she saw through my preposterous act, or whether she hated men in general and English ones in particular. But when she shrugged her shoulders and told me I could pay my $30 and write my report in the public enclosure, I started yammering incoherently about professional facilities and international public relations and had to be restrained from violence by Gordon and Hodenfield.
We queued for Coors to cool us all down. Three straggle-haired beer-guts with mouths in their necks loudly out-grossed each other with claims about who had the most beers, blow-jobs and spliffs before getting out of bed in the morning. The race organisers congratulated each other on the PA system over what a wonderful job they were all doing, somehow expecting us to believe they’d ‘only just break even’ from the 40,000 tickets they’d sold. The only vantage point our little team could get in time for the first Superbike Heat was in a square yard of dust vaguely in sight of the infamous downhill chicane, which the riders hit at around 90 over the brow of a blind hill. Reaction to the first wave of gladiators spewing over the top on their street-based racers was mixed. A large woman with a bouffant continued knitting despite her husband’s admonishments. Our photographer decided to take snaps of the diverse headgear on display instead of Chuck Parme throwing away his big Kawa. Hodenfield snorted something about the superior line he would’ve taken through the chicane but I noticed the strange aroma of exotic cigarettes permeating from his direction. Personally, I felt tiny Wendy Epstein (One of America’s few really top class female road-racers who carried on racing, including at the IoM TT, until the mid-noughties – MW) was pushing her GS1100 harder through the turns than Hodenfield could ever manage, although the yawing of what was basically street suspension threatened to have her, and indeed many of the other riders, kissing tarmac. The fundamental difference between pro-stock and formula racing was just one of the burning questions I resolved to ask her when I could steal Hodenfield’s paddock pass.
Eddie Lawson, who looks like he belongs in the movies rather than in motorbike racing, dumped over everyone in both heats and the final of the Superbike and there were apparently mutterings in the Honda camp that his engine was rather more than race regulated when the stopwatch revealed he was lapping only four seconds slower than Freddie Spencer on the NR500. Belle, when not photographing millinery, was loudly rooting for second-place man Wes Cooley for reasons that only became apparent after I saw him surrounded by lissom blondes in the Suzuki/Yoshimura pit palace: another goddam pin-up. Just when I was mentally bemoaning the dearth of gnarled old stagers like Smart and Du Hamel, Dave Emde crashed on the last lap.
You cannot buy a writing implement at a race circuit, so as Gordon scrawled furiously on a notepad, I self-consciously muttered such details as I could ascertain from the PA system into a micro-cassette recorder… and cursed my professional predicament. While Hodentield ambled casually into the press office and interviewed Mamola and Freddie Spencer, I’m listening to some super-jock twerp extracting revealing gems from Wes Coolev: “Uh, yeah, well we ran a real good race ‘n’ I went fast as ah could, the bike wuz goin’ real well, but, uh, well, Lawson was faster.” Heavy stuff, Wes. But these, and infuriating gibberish about mum and dad’s help and how easy it was for the likes of Fred Merkel and Bob Cunnington, respectively first and second in Sunday’s novice race, to move from dirt to road-racing, were all the insights available. One jock told another jock what a great and experienced commentator he was. Opinions were aired as to whether Randy Mamola’’s motorhome was bigger than Kenny Roberts’. California Yamaha dealers were thanked a zillion times for selling tickets. No-one seemed to think we were very interested in the fact that Roberts was riding the 1980 Yam with the transverse, piston port motor, rather than the ’81 square four, or that the Suzuki RG500 Mamola eventually rode to victory in the Championship was also a year old and 30 pounds heavier than the factory’s latest models. Or why.
Fortunately, Belle produced a bottle of Jim Beam from her bag and I quickly numbed my irritation, just in time to receive Hodenfield’s paddock pass which allowed me to stumble round the rows of opulent caravans and suss this stuff out for myself. No economies in the Honda camp. Freddie’s NR had a shelf full of engines ready in case 20,000rpm proved too much (eat your heart out, Mick Grant, I thought), and the other Spencer, Mike, on the conventional four looked cocky. History, and your copy of MCN, will record that Roberts blew the first segment of the Grand National with a “wrong tyre command” and the second with a clutch. “It’s a little fragile,” he told the commentator with rare lucidity and candour. So what the hell is it doing on a hyper-performance racing bike when the World Championship’s at stake, then? Spencer was indecently quick and effortlessly stylish for a few laps, then lost power and dropped out. Randy Mamola and F. Spencer pulled like trains from much argued-over slots at the rear of the grid as did Roberts before he retired and provided the sharpest racing of the weekend, even though John Bettencourt pipped Spencer for fourth place on a neatly decked-out TZ750.
The second segment of the 33-lapper was clearly Mamola’s, with Cooley sitting in his third second position of the weekend, when I turned to watch Belle taking a snap of what looked like two junkies – an ashen-faced couple with suspicious bruises on their necks – sway towards the exit gate. I was thoroughly Beamed by this point on Sunday afternoon and I couldn’t stop irrationality from posing questions like, “Why do a pair of junkies turn up at this ultra-conservative celebration of all that is good, dangerous and American… and am I really here for any better reasons, however weird they might be?”
I decided that it was the right moment to filch a paddock pass again and confront Wendy Epstein with these matters… as one confused soul to another. I mean, precisely why was she out there being lapped by everyone and his brother on a streetbike in a Formula One heat? There might even be a profile for Honey or Spare Rib in it. “Hi Wendy. Exactly how much do you hate men?” That sort of approach would probably crack it.
Or not. At that point in my alcoholic line of reasoning, it occurred to me that reportage is probably best left to those who can deal with it; the weekly papers and their fast-fingered fact processors. I shall cease this dubious quest for insights and stick with what I’m most comfortable with – raging subjectivity – and to hell with conventional wisdom.
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