Thursday, March 31, 2011

Searching for Spadino

This is the FIM's special gold medal. There are many years in which no one does anything worthy of being awarded this medal. In 1999, it was awarded, posthumously, to Pierlucio 'Spadino' Tinazzi for the rescue of  a dozen people during the Mont Blanc tunnel fire.

Helpless and open-mouthed, we watched the video clips of the tsunami coming ashore in Japan. Then, we realized that the real disaster was probably not the wave, but the damage done to the Fukushima nuclear power facility. The explosion, the toxic fumes, and the heroic attempt by salaried employees to repair the damage and save the lives of total strangers... It all served to remind me of the rescue of a dozen people by motorcyclist Pier Lucio Tinazzi during the 1999 Mont Blanc Tunnel fire. It’s a story I’ve told before, so I apologize if what I now write rings bells with some readers. But since it describes the bravest act ever performed on a motorcycle, I think it can hold up to a few tellings.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Mike the Bike (2 April, 1940-23 March, 1981)

Mike Hailwood died 30 years ago yesterday. He's perhaps best remembered for his amazing "comeback" win at the 1978 Isle of Man TT. That win, incidentally, helped to make the TT F1 class (which begat the Superbike class on the Island) more relevant than the moribund 'Senior' class.

I have a couple of deadlines looming here, so for today's Backmarker I'm going to publish an excerpt from Riding Man, in which I sketch out a subtext to Hailwood's great comeback: For real TT fans, it wasn't just the return of a beloved champion, it was the comeuppance of Phil Read, who many viewed as a TTraitor. Here's that story, from Riding Man...

By the early ’70s, “Mike the Bike” had nothing left to prove on two wheels. He retired from bikes and attempted to follow John Surtees’ example, by winning the world car-driving championship as well. He may well have achieved that goal, given a little more time. As it is, his car-racing career is best remembered for something he did outside the car.

At the 1973 South African Grand Prix, Clay Regazzoni crashed, and was trapped in a fiery wreck. It was Hailwood, fellow driver, who was first on the scene. Mike managed to undo Clay’s seatbelts, and was struggling to pull him free when his own clothing caught fire. He retreated for a moment to extinguish those flames, then re-entered the inferno to complete the rescue. He was awarded the George Medal, Britain’s highest honor for civilian bravery.

The next year, Hailwood severely injured his legs and feet when he crashed a Formula One car at Nurburgring. Despite having escaped his motorcycle racing career unscathed, those injuries meant the end of his car-racing career. He retired to New Zealand, but chafed there.

Mike Hailwood’s return to the TT in 1978 is the stuff of legend.

It’s less well known that he had been unsure of his ability to handle the Mountain after a prolonged absence. He came and rode on open roads in ’77, then borrowed a marshal’s bike to lap on closed roads during the TT. He made his comeback intentions public in the spring of ’78, arriving on the Island with a Ducati for the new F1 class, and a brace of Yamaha twins. Hailwood, who’d always seemed boyish as a motorcycle racer, wasn’t young any more. He was 38–going on about 58.

The fans accepted him as though he’d never been gone but experts knew that a lot had changed. Tires and suspensions were different, and race bikes demanded more physical input from riders. Balding, limping, sweating; he didn’t really seem like “Mike the Bike.” In my time, I heard knowledgeable observers ask the same question about Joey Dunlop: “Why would a man with so little to prove risk so much?”

There’s conflict in the comeback legend, too. Because one year earlier, Phil Read had returned to the Island.

“Where did he find the gall?” That was what locals wondered, because Read had been a ringleader, a few years earlier, when World Championship riders boycotted the TT. To many Manx it was simple: Read had been motivated by personal gain, and had sold out their World Championship status.
As more than one editorial put it, “The course would be a lot safer, if riders were better paid.” They felt that the real reason he’d jumped on the safety bandwagon was that the TT paid less start money than other Grands Prix. He was, to say the least, always motivated by financial gain, and is to this day almost comically tight with money.

In ‘77, when Read made his return, cynics noted–or at least rumored–that he was being paid £10,000 in start money. That year, equipped with a powerful Suzuki “square four” 500 cc GP bike, Read had no trouble bullying his rivals.

Read’s defense–that it was different now that the TT was off the World Championship calendar, and no one “had” to come or take unnecessary chances–rang hollow. The next year, there were many, among the faithful Island fans, whose hopes for the ’78 races could be neatly summarized as “anybody but Read.”

So it was sweet when Mike, a genuine hero untainted by the TT boycott, came and beat Read in the TTF1 race. If people hadn’t paid too much attention to the F1 class before, they did after that. And if his other races that year, including the Senior, were anticlimactic, it didn’t matter. In ’79, Mike came one last time, winning the Senior, on a Suzuki RG500. Soon afterward, Mike was killed in a road accident near his home. He’d gone out to pick up an order of fish and chips. It was a dark and stormy night. There was a truck in the middle of the road making a U-turn. Not a happy ending, I suppose, but good for the myth.

[Hailwood was almost as fast on four wheels as two; he raced in quite a few F1 car races in the mid-'60s, driving Lotus cars entered by Reg Parnell. From 1970-'74, he raced in Ford-powered Surtees and McLaren cars. His best season result was 8th overall in '72. He finished on the podium twice in F1 (2nd place, Italy, '72 & 3rd place, South Africa, '74) and recorded one fastest lap (South Africa, '73). When his driving career ended at Nurburgring in '74, he was on a pace for his best-ever season finish. -- MG]

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

And the winner is... Notable engineer #1, Pietro Remor established basic design of modern superbikes

In the late 1930s, Remor created a revolutionary Italian racing motorcycle called the Rondine. It featured four cylinders, water cooling and supercharging. After WWII, supercharging was banned in Grand Prix racing. Remor took his motor to the Gilera company and recast it as an upright, air-cooled, dual-overhead cam four.

Remor’s design established the across-the-frame four-cylinder motor as the layout for most of the high-performance motorcycles made since 1950. When Gilera withdrew from racing, Remor took his skills and patterns to MV Agusta. Motors he designed won world championships for three different companies in five different decades.
Remor watches over a land-speed record attempt by one of his machines, in the mid-1930s.

Notable engineers - at #2, Walter Kaaden – doubled the horsepower of two-stroke motors

As the head of engineering and racing at MZ in communist-controlled East Germany, Kaaden faced challenges that dwarfed those of engineers on the other side of the iron curtain – materials shortages, travel restrictions, and a dispirited workforce, to name just a few. Despite those handicaps, in the late 1950s and early ‘60s, he made some of the world’s fastest motorcycles. His secret was the expansion-chamber exhaust, which doubled the power output of two-stroke motors. 
For years, Kaaden (right) alone understood the arcane math of expansion-chamber design. Then one of his riders, Ernst Degner, also seen in this pic, escaped to the west bringing the knowledge with him. The next year, Degner rode a Suzuki (bearing a conspicuous resemblance to an MZ) to a world title. Virtually every two-stroke motor built since then used an exhaust based on Kaaden’s research.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Notable engineer countdown - at #3, Yoshiro Harada – led development of the Honda CB750

It is impossible to overstate the impact of the first truly mass-production four-cylinder, disc-braked motorcycle. When the CB750 was unveiled at the 1968 Tokyo Motor Show consumers gasped and the world press (and rival companies) were taken by surprise. It had been developed by a small team working in total secrecy. The team leader was Yoshiro Harada.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Heat damage, again

Between the continued parsing of the Daytona 200 fiasco, the start of the MotoGP season, an interesting press release from the Isle of Man, word of a reconciliation between the FIM and TTXGP, and actual news on the 'Backmarker' front, too, I should have lots to write about. But, I'm going to keep this one short.

News from Japan gets worse. Without a way to get tons of water into crippled reactors' spent-fuel ponds, the fuel rods will burn if they're not burning already. And people are starting to talk about criticality in the densely-packed ponds; if they get hot enough to melt into a denser mass at the bottom of the pools, a Chernobyl-scale environmental disaster looms. Japanese officials are coming under some heat for their handling of the crisis. Bear in mind that many U.S. reactors have also 'over' packed cooling ponds with spent-fuel rods because finding something else to do with them is politically radioactive.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Do something good for Japan, and yourself. Buy Honda stock

I had this crazy dream a few nights ago. I was over in Japan, in the area that has been wrecked by the tsunami. I was riding some kind of trail bike, with a huge Acerbis fuel tank of the type used by Dakar racers. And the bike was fitted with an electrical generator and inverter, so people could plug household appliances into it. People were running to me, getting me to charge their cell phones.

The next day, I read that when Honda shut down motorcycle production, the company sent 1,000 employees home with generators. That's a sort of full circle. The first Honda company was a factory supplying piston rings to Toyota, before WWII. That factory was destroyed in the war, and so were all the Toyota factories. So, Soichiro Honda needed another idea. The very first 'Hondas' were a few dozen bicycles fitted with tiny motors that he scrounged up in the aftermath of the war. The motors were actually intended for use as generators. They were of a type used to power radios at remote observation posts. If memory serves, Honda found about fifty of them. Those were his first mopeds, and they sold like hotcakes.

Honda then went to a whole bunch of bicycle shops, and told the shop owners that if they invested enough money to allow him to start making his own motors, he'd provide them with a great new product. Those small bike shop owners (there were thousands of independent bicycle shops in Japan at the time) provided the capital that started the company we now all know.
A 1947 Honda 'D', scanned from my trusty copy of Tragatsch. I'm not sure if this is one of the surplus-generator bikes, or the second generation (no pun intended) motor that Honda built with the investment capital provided by the bicycle-shop owners.
Honda stock took a $#!+ kicking last week, dropping about $10 in the mid-30 range. It's already started to come back a bit, as investors realize that it's still a great company with great ideas and great products, that are made and purchased all over the world. Judging from the news on the nuclear reactor front, it's going to get worse in Japan before it gets better. But Japan, and companies like Honda, saw far worse in 1945.

The market wrote billions off Honda's value last week. People have written Honda off before; as recently as last season in MotoGP, there were plenty of people who thought Honda would never regain its form. Then came testing for the 2011 season, and Casey Stoner begged to differ. Even Rossi recently admitted, "The Hondas are on another planet." That was a metaphor. In reality, we're all on this one together.

Japan's not Haiti. What will save it? Not blankets, bottled water, MREs, and airlifts of fuel. Although those would be mighty welcome if they could be delivered today, they won't arrive for a week or more. By then, survivors of the quake and tsunami will have made it to unscathed areas where their own friends and families, and countrymen, will ensure that basic needs are met.

Making their nuclear reactors safe is a separate problem. Come what may, Japan's going to enter a new and capital-intensive phase soon. What will save it is precisely the kind of innovation and can-do spirit that made Honda great the first time. The world needs to see that Japan's down but not out, and that the billions of dollars of investment that will be needed to rebuild are just that, an investment. Because the world's attention span is sadly short, and when sympathy stops driving charity, what will remain is a desire for profit.

You want to help? For once, it's easy and by helping, you'll actually make money: Buy Honda stock right now.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011


The spring MotoGP event at Twin Ring Motegi has been delayed until the fall. Motegi is on the northern edge of Tokyo's enormous urban agglomeration, about 1/3 of the distance, as the crow flies, between Tokyo proper and Sendai.
The Tokyo Motorcycle Show was due to start next week. The poster was adorable; it's been canceled. Talk about being left at the altar... (This is not the 'Tokyo Motor Show', where the first Honda CB750-Four was introduced in 1968. That's a biennial event that's mostly car-focused, held in Oct.-Nov.)
I haven't heard any detailed reports of damage to Honda's R&D facility, but with 1 person killed there and 30 injured (and considering Japan's strict building codes) it's safe to say damage to that facility was extensive. Honda's shut down all of its Japanese motorcycle factories for the time being; I haven't heard whether this was because of supply chain disruptions, or if there's some other reason -- maybe to reduce strain on the electrical grid. Japan is an island; all of it's electrical power is generated there, and I don't know what percentage of it was produced in the nuclear reactors which are now permanently offline.

Which brings me to this: There is a small crew of engineers and techs working in and around those reactors in the effort to prevent an exponentially more serious catastrophe. (I recently read that all but 50 to 70 workers had been pulled off the site.) Those who remain are all risking (or should I write 'certainly facing') cancer or worse. The threat is completely amorphous; they're doing it to save people who they'll never see or know, so it they simply chose not to come in, they'd save themselves without ever having to face any particular victim. They're doing it with no guarantee that it will work -- in fact, no one really even knows what 'working' would look like.

This is a special kind of courage and devotion to a larger cause. The people on that crew should be identified. The rest of us should know to whom our respect and gratitude is owed.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Monday Morning Crew Chief: Disalvo? Check. Daytona? Check. Ducati? Dual engines? Check and mate.

Ducati finally won the Daytona 200, breaking a winless streak that was beginning to take on the proportions of a curse.


An engine change on a bizarre red flag initiated by Dunlop? That's not an '*'. It's an '*'.

I'm not taking anything away from Jason Disalvo, who's quick (especially so when he's just putting his head down for a few laps) and a genuinely good guy. He's a racer, and all you can expect him to do is go on green. Or from the Latus Ducati effort; their never-say-die engine swap was inspired. To say the least, the beers must've tasted great yesterday on the beach.

And it was, just, within the rules.

The relevant rule is this one:
2.23.c.iii. During the red flag hiatus period, repairs, adjustments and refueling may be performed on all competing motorcycles...

It's clear that in the absence of a definition for 'repair' that excludes swapping engines, Latus' engine-swap was legal. It's possible that no one on the Rules Committee ever really imagined a red flag incident long enough to do it, although you can be sure that top teams will now keep a spare motor, ready to swap in, in their hot pit arsenals. Latus was forced to swap motors because that deep in the race, just going to a backup bike was forbidden (it's permitted only if the red flag incident takes place in the first two laps.)

Ironically, while the team could change motors within the rules, they couldn't change the rear tire without the express permission of the Race Director, and even then would have had to start from the back of the grid, according to this rule:
2.23.iv. Tires may not be changed during such red flag hiatus period without the prior approval of the Race Director (who may confer with the official tire representatives as to the condition of specific tires).
1. After receiving specific approval, all riders who have changed any tires during such red flag hiatus period must restart at the back of the grid.

2. Riders who have changed any tire without the specific prior approval referred to above, may be subject to one or more of the following penalties: disqualification from restart, black flag and  disqualification, loss of championship points, suspension. Further official action will be at the  discretion of AMA Pro Racing.

Crazy, eh? Changing tires could be cheating, changing motors is fair game. There are many racing sanctioning bodies that require the Race Director's approval for any red flag repairs.

If I was one of the other riders in the lead draft at the (grossly premature) end of the race, I'd also have chafed at this rule:
2.23.f. When a race is stopped after the completion of two (2) or more laps by the race leader, riders’ re-grid positions will be determined by their race positions in the last official lap preceding the red-flagged lap. At the time the red flag is displayed, riders who are not actively competing in the race will not be classified for the restart.
Disalvo had blown one cylinder on his Ducati and was just circulating in to certain retirement when the red flag was thrown. When would he have been deemed 'not actively competing'? If he'd pulled into the pit? Gotten off the bike? In a two-hour red flag delay, could his team have swapped motors and sent a cab to pick him up at the airport ticket counter and rush him back to the track in time for the restart?

Like I said, this isn't a shot at Disalvo or his team, who tried anything to win; that's admirable. It's what makes racing, racing. But I do think that an engine swap changes the character of the Daytona 200. Part of the challenge to winning this race has always been the need to optimize durability and power. That and pit stops are what make it unique in the AMA Superbike calendar.

And I have to say, what's with the long, long mandatory tire swap? Surely we can find or make tires that won't come apart on the banking in less (sometimes a lot less) than 200 miles? And if we can't, should a tire stop in what is still (at least arguably) the blue-riband race in the U.S. series, take more than a few minutes? I could have swapped my own front tire in less time. Why open the door to tactics like engine swaps, which debase the original point of the 200-mile distance? Next year, at the very least, AMA Pro should just give all teams a window (say between 75 and 125 miles) and tell them, change both tires in this window.

Look, in some endurance races, teams run thousands of miles, and they make their own decisions about tire compounds, balancing grip with durability. Incidentally, those guys do change motors from time to time, and I've even seen them do it under green flags. But if they blew a motor in less than 200 miles, there'd be hell to pay for the engine builder.

It's hard for me to believe that decades ago, teams ran the 200 on TZ750s, calling their own stops according to their own strategies, but that now, we can't race 200 miles on production based 600s. If  there's some reason that teams competing in the Daytona 200 can't handle those big-boy tire decisions (or because the banking or the new surface are impossibly hard to compound for) then maybe it's time to forget about the 200. The race is a shadow of its former self anyway, why make it a travesty?

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Last bits of Daytona trivia: It's the Hess of times, it's the worst of times...

Supercross was invented here. Or in Europe. Or in L.A.
In 1972, someone had the bright idea of building an artificial track in the Daytona infield for a round of the AMA’s motocross championship. The Speedway hired Gary Bailey to design the course. Although there had been a few motocross races held inside soccer stadiums in Europe in the '60s, and convicted murderer Mike Goodwin has a solid claim to having invented the modern version of the sport when he promoted his 'Superbowl of Motocross'  at the L.A. Coliseum. It was his event name that was condensed into the word 'supercross.' Still, there are lots of people who feel that '72 event at the Speedway was the first 'supercross' race. In 1974, the AMA conducted its first full (three-round!) Supercross championship and the first of those races, too, was held at Daytona.

If I see one more Harley, I’ll…
A trip to Main Street during Bike Week will remind you that, in America “Motorcycle” still equals “Harley-Davidson”. If you come for the races and want a night time dose of sport bike culture, forget biker bars near the beach. Head for the Hess garage just west of I-5 on International Speedway Boulevard. If you come on your own bike, feel free to bet on an illegal street race – just make sure you bet on losing. These guys are serious.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Even more Daytrivia. Cutting it close...

That’s Mister Daytona, to you

Scott Russell and Miguel Duhamel have each won the Daytona 200 five times. For my money, Russell gets the nod over my fellow-Canadian, because all of his wins came on Superbike-class machinery. Russell nearly won seven of the races; he also finished second in two races where the combined margin of victory totaled only .06 seconds.
Over the years, Miguel Duhamel and Scott Russell have racked up a lot of miles at the sharp end of the Daytona 200 field. Harley-Davidson drafted "Mr. Daytona" into the ill-fated VR1000 Superbike program. A gruesome start-line crash on the hog ended the competitive phase of the Georgian's career

Two of Russell’s wins were on Yamaha motorcycles. The tuning forkers have won the race 18 times. The only other manufacturer that comes close is Harley-Davidson with 16 wins, most of them on the sand.

The smallest margin of victory in the long-standing Russell-Duhamel duel was Miguel’s 0.01-second advantage over Scott Russell in 1996. For what it's worth, Duhamel has one claim to fame that will probably never be matched: he won his first “200” in 1991 and his fifth in 2005 – a fourteen year span.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Still more Daytona trivia. Now that's a classy race...

Classy, eh?

Maybe we've come to accept the "200" as a Daytona SportBike-class race. Or have we just tired of complaining that it's not a Superbike race any more? The fact is, like everything at Speedway, the 200 is completely controlled by the France family, who own the track. They’ve arbitrarily changed the rules on many occasions – often to the dismay of fans, racers, and even the AMA. 

From 1937-’76 the race was run under AMA Class C rules. Until 1968, Class C permitted overhead valve motors of up to 500cc and side valve motors (the type used by Harley-Davidson) of up to 750cc. In ’69 the AMA allowed all Class C machines to displace 750cc, effectively ending Harley-Davidson’s ability to compete and causing the tens of thousands of Harley riders who converged on Daytona for Bike Week to lose interest in proceedings at the track.

From ’77-’84 the race was for Formula 1 motorcycles – typically 750cc two-strokes like the Yamaha TZ750. When race fans were bored by years of Yamaha domination, the France family arbitrarily made the 200 a race for a new class of production-based racers called “Superbikes”.

It was a Superbike race from 1985 to 2004, when the Jimmy France announced another class change. Beginning in 2005, the 200 would be a race for Formula Extreme-class motorcycles. The reason: they wanted the race to be run under rules that would again allow a Harley-Davidson (aka Buell) to be competitive.
Dick Mann rode a CB750 Racing Type - not a CR750 'kit' bike like this one. But ironically, it was the availability of this kit that forced Honda - against its will - to field factory bikes in the Daytona 200. Over the winter of 1969, Honda told one of its U.S. execs, Bob Hansen, that it didn't want the CB750 raced in the 200. Hansen, who was already running an unofficial works team out of his basement, pointed out that several hopped up street bikes were already being prepared by private teams, and that none of them had a chance of winning. To preserve the company's honor, a full-factory effort was rushed together. Only one of the factory Hondas finished, but all anyone remembers is that it finished first.

“Win on Sunday, sell (wait a minute ­– Hondas?) on Monday”
In 1970, BSA, Triumph, Norton and Honda all had new, bet-the-company 750cc motorcycles hitting the market. A win was such a vital part of BSA’s business plan that the company even lured Mike Hailwood out of retirement to ride a new Rocket III in the “200”. Even Harley-Davidson had an all-new XR750 racer for Cal Rayborn. Virtually all of the factory bikes broke down in the race but at the end of the day all anyone remembered was that the last Honda running was the one Dick Mann rode to victory.That was the first time that any motorcycle not made in the U.S. or Britain ever won the 200.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

What? A Thursday without a fresh Backmarker?

Dear Readers,

For the first time in living memory*, I haven't posted a fresh, full length Backmarker column today. If you don't mind, I'll plead in the alternative (as a lawyer would say) and explain that this rare slip-up could have been caused by any number of circumstances...

  • Last night, at the monthly Heartland of America Motorcycle Enthusiasts (HoAME) club meeting, I drank a little too, um, enthusiastically.
  • I've been slammed with work trying to push a couple of feature film projects to the next level.
  • I've been working hard, too, to make Riding Man available on Kindle. Now that the first edition is sold out, I've heard of at least one copy selling for almost five times the cover price on Amazon!
  • Last but not least, Mary and I are preparing a podcast of 'Searching for Spadino' - for release on the anniversary of the Mont Blanc tunnel fire.

The big news is, I've also been distracted by setting up a new media partnership for Backmarker. Once a month, starting soon (I hope!) a special Backmarker will appear on a prominent motorcycle web site. It's safe to say that it's already in your bookmarks. This is good news for me because it will expose Backmarker to a much wider audience than its ever had in the past. The first of these new Backmarkers will not disappoint you - it's a look at an entirely new form of motorcycle entertainment - something I played a small part in creating, with Micky Dymond, a multi-time AMA motocross champ, MXGP hero, underappreciated roadracer and all-round Backmarker favorite.

Stay tuned!

*Living memory of some organism that lives, say, four years.

More Daytona trivia from the Dept. of True Grit

It used to take true grit to set a record
Long before there was a Daytona International Speedway, races and record attempts were held on the sandy beachfronts of Daytona and neighboring Ormond, Florida.
At low tide the damp, hard-packed sand provided a straight, dead level surface that ran for miles. It was perfect for land-speed record attempts. In 1904, the pioneering aviator Glenn H. Curtiss rode his two-cylinder motorcycle 67.36 mph – a class record that stood for seven years.
In 1907, Curtiss returned to the beach with a motorcycle powered by one of his V-8 airplane engines. That motorcycle made about 40 horsepower – a heck of lot in the day. It reached a speed of 136.27 mph.
Curtiss’ V-8 wasn’t just the world’s fastest motorcycle – it was the fastest thing on wheels, period. The daring young man held the land speed record for twelve years until Ralph dePalma went faster in a Packard car, also on Daytona Beach. That was the last time that the outright land speed record was ever held by a motorcycle. 
Curtiss' V-8 design lacked the streamlining you'd expect in a land-speed-record holder, but it had what ballistics experts call 'sectional density.' So, he-man, feel like pushing a buck forty, on those tires, on sand?
It was nearly Miami International Speedway
Bill France Sr., who built Daytona International Speedway (and was the founder of NASCAR) was a mechanic in Virginia and Maryland in the ‘30s. Winters up there made working on cars in poorly heated garages miserable, so he decided to move to Miami. His car broke down at Daytona and he liked it so much he stayed. He joined in the local beach races, then became a race promoter. He built the Speedway in ’59. The AMA moved the 200-mile National Championship from the beach to his track in ’61.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Daytona Factoids to help you walk the walk, and talk the talk at Bike Weak, er, make that 'Bike Week'

There was a time when Daytona really lived up to its 'World Center of Racing' hyperbole, at least as far as the motorcycle racing world was concerned. That time's long past, sadly, but it's still the focus of attention amongst American roadracers for the next few days.

In that dubious honor, I've compiled 10 bits of Daytona trivia. The first two will help you to...

Walk the walk (to the old beach monument)
If you can stand the bright morning sunlight outside – and the sound of waves crashing inside your head – the beach is a great place to walk off a Bikeweek hangover (and oh, you’ll have one.) No pilgrimage to Daytona is complete without a visit to the beach monument to early “200” racers. It’s located across from 100 N. Atlantic Avenue.

And, talk the talk
To create the impression you’re a seasoned Bike Week veteran, say, “I miss the old North Turn bar,” when you’re buying a round. In its original incarnation, the North Turn was a down-at-the-heels dive, located at the north end of the old beach course. Although it’s still there, it’s evolved into a tourist trap – a “Bubba Gump’s” for the leather set during Bike Week, and one of a thousand generic NASCAR-themed sports bars the rest of the year.
If you must go, the soulless new North Turn bar is located on the A1A highway in Ponce Inlet. (Appropriately named, if you use 'ponce' in the UK slang sense, instead of in the 'fountain of youth' sense.)

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Oh all right, here's one for 'Fat Tuesday'...

Billy: "I can't find my bike" Benny: "You're sitting on it."
Billy and Benny McCrary were born in Hendersonville NC in 1946. Although they were small babies (just over 5 pounds) they quickly grew to become the world’s heaviest twins, weighing in at well over 700 pounds each. Although they are now usually remembered as pro wrestlers they were also known for the motorcycle stunts they performed on Honda SL100 minibikes. To be honest, I don’t know what “stunts” they could possibly have done, but who cares? Just riding at all must have stunned onlookers.

In fact, in the ‘70s they rode the tiny bikes across the U.S., traveling 3000 miles and amply proving the ruggedness of Honda’s products. In 1979, Billy suffered what should have been a minor injury during their stunt act and died of heart failure. Touchingly, his brother buried him back in Hendersonville, under the world’s largest granite tombstone. Benny died of heart failure at 54, and he too was buried under the stone, which is decorated with images of their beloved minibikes.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

This writer's life. Riding Man, redux

Ironically, my book Riding Man sold out of its first printing almost on the day that Cycle World released its April issue, in which Peter Egan devoted a column to what amounted to a book (and DVD) review -- and a very favorable one, at that.

I've known this review was coming for the last month or so, and I've been watching my remaining stocks of the first edition dwindle, so running out of books didn't come as a surprise. If I could afford it, I'd reprint it. The alternative is to set up a Kindle downloadable edition, and to arrange for a Print-on-Demand second edition, which is something I could do with minimal set-up costs. But there are a few technical hurdles to both of those procedures, and it will take a few more days' work to get a clean copy of the book's text. Argh.
I have never met Peter Egan, though we've since traded emails. He got a copy of the book from a mutual friend of ours, Ken Gross. Ken's one of the most respected automotive writers in the U.S., and I suppose that since Riding Man came with his endorsement, Egan was inclined to view it favorably. Still I wasn't prepared to be compared to Bob Dylan and Winston Churchill. I mean, I think I'm a better motorcycle rider than Dylan, and as far I know, Winston Churchill couldn't ride for $#!+.

The whole anxiety over a wave of positive press coming when I have no way to capitalize on it is just one of many ups and downs along the Riding Man road. I had planned to write a book about my Isle of Man experience from the very beginning, and actually pitched the idea to publishers a couple of years before I raced there.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Pure motorcycle advertising genius

It's not just Ural that's suddenly learned how to actually sell motorcycles. The web hipsite Hell for Leather brought this bit of pure motorcycle ad genius to my attention.

The recession of '08 may have dropped bike sales into the toilet, but it was shortsighted and cowardly motorcycle marketing departments that flushed it. That's why despite ample evidence the economy's turned the corner, our business can barely see the apex. But one or two unlikely new trendsetters are emerging; witness the quintessential nerdbike, Royal Enfield transforming its brand with perfect timing. (Ironically, it's made in a country where most toilets still aren't the flush type.)

Judging from this beautiful short film, it's not just manufacturing plants we should move to developing countries where labor's cheap... it's marketing departments, too.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Art and the Zen of motorcycle making - an afternoon cooped up with Shinya Kimura

The first time I met Shinya Kimura, he was riding a 1914 Indian across eastern Arkansas. I was covering the Cannonball run across the U.S. Ayumi (Shinya's wife) followed him across the country in a rusted-out, 30 year-old van with 'Chabbott Engineering' hand-lettered on the door. I couldn't decide which vehicle was more likely to make it to California. The van made it all the way; the Indian covered over 3,000 miles but Shinya missed a couple of days when he had to make a new crankpin. At a time when custom bike builders seem more interested in starring in their own reality TV shows than in grinding valves or hammering alloy, his self-effacing style and sheer iron-butt endurance was enough to make me look him up the next time I was in Southern California.

I flew into L.A. on a Saturday. I called the shop to see if Shinya would be there. His wife, who speaks better English and handles all the phone calls, assured me was working, in a tone of voice that suggested it was a stupid question; he was in the shop all day, every day.

Azusa is a bland, industrialized suburb up on the north side of L.A. where miles of urban sprawl run into the Santa Monica mountains. Even though I had the address of Chabbott Engineering (Chabott means 'fighting rooster' in Japanese) I drove right past it a couple of times before spotting an open garage door with four or five trashed '70s bikes basking in the sun.When I finally realized that hole-in-the-wall was the place I was looking for, I had one of the most satisfying afternoons I've ever had as a writer. To spend a virtual hour cooped up with Shinya Kimura, click that tantalizing 'Read more' link and, well, read more...

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Notable engineers countdown - at #4, Edward Turner gave birth to twins

Turner (1901-'73) was born on the day King Edward was crowned, which was appropriate as Turner himself became British motorcycle “royalty.” When he was hired as Triumph’s General Manager and Chief Designer he was offered a lavish salary and 5% of the company stock and profits. 

Soon after joining Triumph, he designed the 1937 Speed Twin. In truth, the motor was not strikingly innovative – some say Turner just copied its basic architecture from the Riley 9 car in which he was chauffeured to work. However, it made elegant use of existing technology and established the basic design for all British twins between the end of WWII and the 1970s. For much of that time, bikes like the Triumph Bonneville were the most sought-after models in the market.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Notable engineer countdown - at #5, Phil Vincent

Phil Vincent, making what must have been about his last stand, at the Earl's Court Motorcycle Show in 1954.
Between the late 1920s and mid-‘50s, Vincent’s motorcycles were among the fastest and most advanced on the market. He was the first major manufacturer to relocate rear shocks to something like the position now used on virtually all modern bikes. But the most striking aspect of his design was the way he virtually did away with the frame altogether. After WWII when high-quality steel tubing, suitable for use in motorcycle frames, was in short supply in Britain, he attached the steering head to the front of his massive V-twin motor and pivoted the swingarm from the back of it. Today’s manufacturers are still catching up to that idea.