Monday, November 17, 2014

This Christmas, if you buy any of my other books, you'll get a free copy of my Bathroom Book of Motorcycle Trivia!

Just when you thought Christmas advertising had reached its nadir, you're here. Sorry about that.

But even though this ad is tasteless, signed and inscribed books make tasteful Christmas gifts. And this year, every time you buy a copy of Riding Man, On Motorcycles: The Best of Backmarker, One Man's Island (DVD), or BMW Racing Motorcycles: The Mastery of Speed, you'll get a free copy of my best-selling book—the Bathroom Book of Motorcycle Trivia.

To go to the order page, click the Crappy Santa photo just to the right!

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

More photos from an American in Japan, 1959-'61

Mike Harper today. He runs Harper Moto Guzzi with his son. They're the world's largest Guzzi parts distributor. In the late '50s, he raced a BSA in the U.S. Midwest.
In 1959, Mike enlisted in the Navy. He was assigned to the Atsugi Naval Base, near Tokyo. He was supposed to provide mechanical support for HUK-1 heavy lift helicopters like this one, but soon after he arrived, the Navy transferred all the Huskies somewhere else. Mike got a cushy job as Shore Patrol, which left him a lot of time for motorcycles.
He bought this Honda 350 Dream single...
…and joined the Atsugi Road Brothers. The club's members were U.S. navy men and local bikers.
They hung out at Aoki Motors, the local Honda and Yamaha dealer.
The ditch at left is a 'benjo' ditch; an open sewer. "I guess you didn't want to crash in there," I said. "No," Mike replied. "But everyone did."
The Navy let the Road Brothers use Navy vehicles to take their bikes to races! Rider pictured: Mitsuo Aoki.
One of the biggest races in Japan at that time was a national scrambles at Fujinamiya.
 Mike raced at Fujinamiya on his BSA 650, but it was a handful on the rough course.
The next year, he was the official factory rider for the Lilac team. He's E31 here.
The Lilac was not up to the challenge; he never finished a race on it.
When they weren't racing, there were often field meets. Today, motorcycle accidents are a major 'readiness' issue for the armed forces, and they're trying to incorporate motorcycle safety training for soldiers, airmen, and sailors. Maybe they need to make skills development fun, as these guys did. This bike belonged to one of the Japanese members of the Road Brothers, who used it to deliver laundry
 Several road brothers prepare for a field meet event.
 There were lots of big American cars in Japan at that time, apparently.
 Mike on a 50cc Tohatsu. When they raced at Japanese air bases, they had to ride around bomb craters.
Another shot of 50cc bikes on an air base.
 Mike with his 350 single.
Another sailor, Roger Thomas, poses with a pair of then-new 305 Superhawks.
 A field meet at Shimoda air base.
 Atsugi club members' field meet.
 Field meet.
 Field meet.
 Riding a greased plank(!)
 This was a "lime run". Riders followed a series of white lime markings, along an unknown route.
 Another sailor from the Kansas City area, Dick Fletcher, on a road above a military housing area near Yokohama.
 Mike, on a Meguro 250, with Tomio Aosabi, one of the Japanese members of the Road Brothers. Mike "got orders" [to return to the U.S.] in 1961. Although he later became a Yamaha dealer, he never returned to Japan, or saw any of his Japanese pals again.

 Mike on his BSA Rocket Gold Star

 One of the places they rode out to visit was "the big Buddha" at Kamakura.
 Drag racing on an air base.
A group of Road Brothers on part of the Chiba-Atami road course.
Winning that race got Mike entry into the Tokyo Otokichi Club, and an invitation to test ride the Honda RC160 on Honda's test track. He met Soichiro Honda on that day. I asked him when it dawned on him that he was witnessing the most important moment in Japanese motorcycle history -- the time when Japanese manufacturers made the transition from copyists to innovators, and when the quality of Japanese bikes began to surpass their more established European and American competitors. He told me, "Oh, about twenty years after I left."

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Was a GoPro camera responsible for Michael Schumacher's brain injury?

There are stories circulating which suggest that Michael Schumacher's skiing injury may have been made far more serious because a GoPro camera mount on his helmet somehow weakened the helmet. Schumacher fell while skiing, and struck his head on a rock. Although the camera itself was undamaged (and has provided investigators with video of the fall) his helmet shattered.

I think this news has implications for the people who write racing rules.

As the story goes, a French technical institute examined the broken helmet and determined that the structural failure was not the result of manufacturing or material defect. They've speculated that the GoPro mount somehow caused the failure.

It's become incredibly common to see ordinary commuters or recreational riders with GoPros mounted to their helmets or bikes. God knows what they do with the hours of incredibly boring video they must record; presumably it's deleted without ever being watched. And, of course, every fucking stinter has a camera, or two or three, mounted. This new toy for narcissists incredibly tiring. (Although I do admit that some of the videos they record are entertaining…)

Even Marc Marquez was wearing a helmet mounted GoPro at the Superprestigio. I mean, WTF? There's not enough video of him? He has to record his own?
I can sort of see why club racers record their own races; races that aren't being recorded any other way. But when Marquez and Baker tangled in the Superprestigio, Marc's camera ended up on the track. Probably no big deal on a slow speed, dirt short track. But I don't like the idea of purposely adding non-essential components to road racing bikes—components that are just another thing to fall off and, possibly, cause a crash.

Now, with the suggestion that a helmet mount may have greatly exacerbated Schumacher's injury, it's time for racing organizations to ban helmet cameras, and give serious thought to banning bike-mounted cameras, at least until technical rules have been written that ensure they won't just become track debris.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Jay Leno can't stay retired

This past summer, I dropped by Jay Leno's garage, looking for material for my column in Classic Bike magazine. Leno dropped a little bombshell in the course of our chat. Here's the text I sent in for my September "Classic America" essay

“And of course there’s this: the most misunderstood bike of all time.”

Jay Leno and I had been meandering through his bike collection, and stopped by a Suzuki RE5. 

“At 70 miles an hour, this thing is so smooth; it’s like a turbine,” he said. Then, he reached down, turned a key, and punched the starter. It spun for a few seconds without catching. He punched it again; again with no joy. He shrugged.

“Is that a Water Buffalo?” 

That question came from Roland Sands, who walked up with another guy who was introduced to us only as Anthony. 

Sands—one of the most respected custom bike builders in the U.S.—had been over in an adjacent room, where he was installing one of his bikes near several tables laid for a formal lunch. As it happened, on the same day I came to interview Jay, a dozen motorcycle journalists had lunch in the garage, as part of a press junket organized by BMW. They were all riding the new R nine T. 

Sands was there because BMW hopes that the R nine T will become a favorite of the custom crowd. And, as I was told later, ‘Anthony’ was Anthony Kiedis, of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. I’m pretty sure that Leno thought he was Roland’s assistant, as I did.

I worked on a couple of events with Jay, back in the days when he was the star of the Tonight Show and a fixture on American TV five nights a week. Every time I visited the garage, I marveled at his 150 cars and 100 motorcycles; his facility and tools; and a staff devoted to nothing but maintaining and restoring his bikes and building almost anything that he could imagine. 

He’s got an Ariel Atom open-wheel car that came, stock, with a 300-horsepower GM Ecotec motor. His guys built a bespoke V-8 out of two Hyabusa top ends, that makes about 500. That’s the kind of shit they can do in-house. 

A lot of people would be jealous, I guess, but I’ve spent enough time behind the scenes with him to realize the price of fame at that level. People literally grabbing him to adjust microphones, or wardrobe, or makeup, or whatever, right up to the second the cameras started taping. And more grabbing any time he was out in public, shaking hands over and over again. They’d wrap a show in mid afternoon and Jay’d hide out in the garage for a few hours. Even then, there always seemed to be someone from the network lurking nearby; a signature needed here, someone who wanted to meet him; a script revision. Long after dark, he’d go home—not to sleep but to work on the next day’s monologue.

Those nights I left thinking, if the devil offered me all Jay’s bikes and tools, with the caveat that they had to come with his life, I’d turn it down.

Leno was thinking about restoring this Brough, which has an Isle of Man history. But when they looked inside the fuel tank, they saw that there was a message engraved inside, which read, "Whip it like a mule"(!?) That tiny detail made him reconsider changing the bike at all. That's the kind of minutiae—and story—that makes him treasure a bike.
This summer, I went back to see if his life is any different, now that he’s turned over The Tonight Show to Jimmy Fallon. I guess I hoped—for his sake—that he’d tell me that he’d finally learned MIG welding in his free time, or show me some project that he’d been saving for years so he could tackle it himself, rather than have his staff work on it. 

I suppose he does have more time, but not that much more. And more privacy, although while we talked, a golf cart rolled through slowly; some private tour for NBC advertisers, or contest winners, or whatever; and there were the 20 or so people associated with the BMW thing; and one more pesky journalist—me. The only real change I noticed was that he said ‘fuck’ a lot more in conversation. I guess when he was on TV five nights a week, he had to rein that in. 

The television network still operates the web site, which gets six million hits a month and is the home of a web-TV series, which just earned its sixth Emmy nomination (the equivalent of the BAFTA Awards for U.S. television.)

In passing, Jay mentioned that there were plans afoot to produce a broadcast TV version of the web series. He was evasive when I tried to pin him down on details, but said it would be on the air soon. 

Actually, he said “probably by the time this comes out,” but Classic Bike takes forever to show up on U.S. newstands, so Jay may have thought an interview done in July would appear around Christmas. There’s an excellent chance that you’re reading a bit of a scoop, since—at least as I write this—the fact there’ll soon be a broadcast version of Jay Leno’s Garage is not common knowledge.

On the way out I ran into John Pera, who told me, “There’s a lot of people fighting for [the show]. NBC wanted to do a five-day a week show, but they wanted to control the scripting. Jay said, ‘No, no, no, there’s not going to be any scripted, Orange County Choppers fake bullshit.’”

That’s as it should be. They can make a great show just by tapping Jay’s enthusiasm and love of detail. He showed me a Brough-Superior from the estate of Cecil Clutton. It had been raced on the Isle of Man in the ‘Twenties. 

“I was going to restore this,” he told me. “But then I looked inside this tank with a flashlight, and I saw something written in there. It turned out that someone had scratched ‘Whip it like a mule’ on one of the pieces of metal before it was soldered together. I thought, this is history; I’m not touching it.”

Obviously ‘retirement’ isn’t really changing Jay. At least, not too fucking much.

Well, just today the Hollywood Reporter claims an exclusive on the news that Leno will soon have a prime time show on CNBC. Was he really trying to give me a scoop? Maybe I should've done more with the story...

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Have you no sense of decency, AMA? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?

Just when you think the AMA can't be more of a would-be NRA (with all the shameless pandering and disingenuous bullshit, but without the political clout) the Kochsuckers in Columbus come out with… wait for it… an assault on the Centers for Disease Control.

After the NRA succeeded in blocking the appointment of a Surgeon General who had the temerity to address gun violence as a public-health issue, the AMA's decided to attack the CDC for considering Americans' propensity to ride motorcycles without crash helmets as a public health issue.

Then, it has the sheer fucking unmitigated gall to coyly say, "The AMA strongly encourages the use of personal protective equipment, including gloves, sturdy footwear and a properly fitted motorcycle helmet certified by its manufacturer to meet the DOT standard."

NO IT DOESN'T. Let's just make that clear, OK?

If the steady flow of press releases I get is any indication, the AMA's single largest legislative focus is fighting mandatory helmet laws. There is simply no reason to say, "We want you to be able to ride without a helmet," unless it's OK to ride without a helmet. This is exactly the same as when tobacco companies argue against smoking restrictions, while claiming that they aren't encouraging smoking.

What the fuck, AMA? How can killing off your constituents possibly make sense to you? I mean, the tobacco industry sells a product that comes with a guaranteed level of risk, but the AMA continually uses its words to make a qualified argument for helmets, but devotes its effort and budget to REDUCING helmet use. Because make no mistake, states with mandatory helmet laws have close to universal helmet use, and states without mandatory laws… don't. Ipso facto, the AMA's working to reduce the use of the single most effective piece of motorcycle safety equipment. And if the AMA's pathetic shills trot out the tired old lie that, "We don't want the helmet debate to distract from driver education blah, blah, blah…" I will fucking puke.

Let's get this straight! All the effort that the AMA spends arguing against helmet laws—all that effort and expense is, in fact, effort and expense that otherwise COULD be used for driver education.

And now, they're capitalizing on the media's fucking trumped up ebola panic to get in a little dig at the CDC. That's just great. You know what, if there's a fucking ebola epidemic, it won't matter whether we wear crash helmets or not. It'll serve the AMA right.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Parsing MotoAmerica's 2015 class structure

So, the other shoe’s dropped—sort of—as far as MotoAmerica’s class structure goes.

It seems there will be one race for literbikes, but it will have two separately scored classes, ‘Superbike’ and ‘Superstock’.

Superbike rules basically are broken into three subsections: chassis, motor, and electronics. The chassis rules will be as per this year’s AMA rules. Engine rules will be as per 2015 SBK rules. Teams can choose to run either last year’s AMA-approved electronics package, or next season’s SBK electronics.

The Superstock class will be as per FIM Superstock regulations.

There will be two races for 600s; ‘Supersport’ and ‘Superstock’.

In 2015, Supersport bikes will be, basically, what we have been calling Daytona Sportbike. The plan is to use the AMA’s 2014 chassis rules, and FIM Supersport engine rules. Electronics will be as per the AMA’s 2014 rulebook.

Meanwhile, Superstock bikes will be built to rules similar to last year’s Supersport bikes.

If you’re confused, this chart might help.

Previously known as
AMA 2014
SBK 2015
...also includes
Superstock 1000
New class
Daytona Sportbike
AMA 2014
AMA 2014
Superstock 600
Spec TBD


From what I read, discussions are underway that could see at least two additional classes added. Apparently, MotoAmerica has talked with Harley-Davidson about the existing spec class for the now-discontinued-due-to-commercial-failure Sportster XR1200X. There’s also been lots of talk about a spec class suitable for junior riders, perhaps a la KTM RC Cup.

MotoAmerica has said that they’re leaving the possibility of incorporating a Moto2 class in 2016, when—I expect—the FIM will open Moto2 to other engine manufacturers. There’s been no mention, so far, of Moto3. As I’ve noted elsewhere, Spain’s thriving Moto3 class is probably the single best steppingstone into the World Championship right now.


I guess what we’re seeing here is MotoAmerica doing what it can to ease the transition for existing AMA Pro teams, while also lowering the barriers to entry in 600 and 1000cc classes. It would be churlish to point out that just before the DMG takeover, the AMA took a lot of heat for a show that included two 600 classes (SuperSport and Formula Xtreme) and two 1000cc classes (SuperBike and Superstock). And that the class-within-a-class structure was dismal when there were CRT teams in MotoGP. In fairness, EVO rules seem to be fairly comprehensible in BSB and World Superbike.

I would rather have seen them tear the bandaid off right away.

My suggestion would have been:

  • Superbike—a la CEV; run to FIM Superstock rules
  • Moto2—with flexibility of running any manufacturer’s motor, and grandfathering in Daytona Sportbikes
  • Moto3—allowing 125GP machines to fill the grid, a la Motostar British Championship, which is a BSB support class.

It would be easy to tweak the existing Moto2 rules to allow for additional manufacturers. Basically, it would mean using existing chassis rules, while allowing for any motor built to FIM 600 Supersport specs. You could enforce reasonable parity with claiming rules or rules forcing any manufacturer that wanted to participate to supply x number of motors at a fixed price.

I don’t know how easy it would be for American entrants to build or buy enough Moto3 bikes to fill a grid, but there are Moto3 classes in Britain, France, Spain, and Japan amongst other places.

KRAVE’s wishy-washy class structure could mean that KRAVE’s principals are stuck in the old ways themselves, which would suck; it could mean that the “manufacturers” (read: distributors) and other stakeholders (read: privateer teams and key sponsors & suppliers) are running the rules making procedure, which would also suck; or it could just mean that Wayne Rainey and KRAVE feel they need an interim year in which they have something—anything—to put on track, while they bring American road racing into the 21st C.

I’m reserving judgement. But I’d feel better if they’d announced the 2015 class structure—which is a bit of a dog’s breakfast—in the context of a statement about, “this is where we’re starting, because we have to start somewhere, but let’s be clear about where we’re heading: in two years’ time, our classes will be...”

Monday, September 29, 2014

TV or not TV? That is the question

I've been trying to stay on top of news about KRAVE's new MotoAmerica series. But, understandably, after a flurry of releases in the first few days, the flow of real news seems to have slowed; they're presumably busy with the actual nuts and bolts of  assembling a series.

I'm guessing that my fellow Canadians are wondering, too, whether the FIM "North American" status means that we can expect a race in Canada. I'm not sure whether there are any Canadian tracks that meet FIM standards. (Are there? There are some beautiful and historic tracks there, for sure. Mosport held a round of the World Championship in 1967. But up to modern standards?)

One thing that I did notice right away, though, was a resurgence of the obsession with television. I'm an "advertising guy". I get that the money in professional motorcycle racing comes from sponsors. But I'm not on this we-must-be-on-TV bandwagon. In fact, months ago, when (make sign of cross now) DMG unveiled Fan's Choice coverage of AMA Pro events, I was one of the first to say, Maybe this is better than television.

There are two big forces at work out in the world of specialty media and niche sports:

  • The new old guard, at KRAVE--and the heads of U.S. distribution for the Japanese Big Four--all date from a generation when "being on TV" equalled "having a nice big audience". That hasn't been true for decades. In the n-channel universe, there's an excellent chance no one's watching, and it's almost a certainty that no one's just stumbling onto your programming and about to fall in love with it.
  • TV's audience is shrinking and aging anyway. The younger audiences that motorcycle manufacturers and sponsors like Red Bull and Monster crave are online.

By putting so much emphasis on TV, KRAVE's preparing for the last war, not the next one. Just because you're "on TV" doesn't mean anyone's watching, any more. Tell the truth, have you ever seen an episode of that reality TV show built around Larry Pegram? I haven't. I don't even know what network it's on, what cable package I'd need in order to get that channel, if it's even available at all from the cable provider that serves my building. And all that presupposes that I want cable, but I don't; I've already completely untethered myself from cable. Like the land line phone, it's ancient history to me.

AMA Pro was bitterly criticized for not getting U.S. road racing (or flat track) on TV. In the end, with Fan's Choice, they put a program together that offered decent coverage and was available for free, both live and on demand to anyone anywhere in the world, as long as they had web access.

I'm not saying the series shouldn't be televised. It should be televised, if they can arrange for that. But not at the expense of a great free webcast. That's the future, and it's where young fans already live.

The obsession with a TV package is wrong-headed. If it's being driven by KRAVE, that's depressing to me. Because we don't need more old thinking; we need all-new thinking.

If it's being driven by manufacturers and potential sponsors, I guess that means they're another bunch of out-of-touch old men. But no matter how much power they used to wield in AMA Pro's heyday, they shouldn't be allowed to call the tune all by themselves now.

In summary: I understand the desire for a TV package built around the MotoAmerica series. But if the amount of talk about TV indicates that KRAVE and potential sponsors are obsessed with TV, we're not entering a brave new era; we're clinging to past, under a new name.