Monday, December 29, 2008

Remembrance of Things Fast





I don't remember the first flat-track race I went to, but it was in the early 1970s. It was what they called Sportsman scrambles back then. The tracks had a hard-packed dirt surface, and were laid out in a rough oval, with at least one right-hander and a jump.

Scrambles were a staple of the Sportsman class, which had three levels, Novice, Junior, and Expert, with separate displacement categories within each. Sportsmen were amateurs who raced for tin—cheesy trophies with winged naked ladies on top, or engraved wooden plaques—mostly on converted enduros and the odd stripped-down street bike in the Novice ranks, and serious track-only equipment in the Expert classes.

After you clawed your way to the top of the Sportsmen ranks, you could get a Class C license and race in Nationals for money at big tracks like San Jose, the legendary mile oval next to the Santa Clara County Fairgrounds. But in Class C you went up against hard, hungry, card-carrying professionals instead of the dog-walkers and paper boys you'd been playing weekend racer with until then.

In Hayward, California, there was a small, beat-up, roach motel of a scrambles track I grew to love like my own home. It had a long back straight with a jump in the middle of it that funneled into a decreasing-radius left-hander bordered by a chain-link fence, which was all that kept the racers and the spectators apart. Then the right-hander, a short straight, a shallow right followed by a 180-degree left, and onto the straight again.

The fence along the back straight was made of plywood, and was painted with ads for local bike shops, burger joints, and gas stations. The chain-link fence outside the left-hander was concave from the impact of riders who misjudged their entry speed, or got high-sided into it by someone passing on the inside.

The track was lined with yellow sodium lights that made it look like a Safeway parking lot at night, which was when most of the races were held. The pits were as dark as the inside of a cow.

The 250 Novice class was more competitive, and a whole lot more fun to watch, than the name would suggest. The 250s and the 650s—mostly big, bucking, thundering BSAs and Triumphs—were what the fast guys rode, both in Sportsman and later in the pros.

The races to watch on any given night were 250 Novice and Expert, and 650 Novice and Expert. The 250 Novice races were like little league baseball, where gaping holes in experience were plastered over with enthusiasm. The 650 Novices were just more of the same, except the bikes were faster, noisier, and a lot harder to control. The Expert races in either category were simply wonderful, cut-throat duels between masters of the craft.

But it was San Jose that turned my infatuation with flat-track into hopeless adoration. They called it The Mile. When you said it, everyone knew which mile you were talking about. Nothing I had ever seen before prepared me for the first time I stood on the outside of turn one, my fingers laced in the chain-link fence, as a pack of riders appeared first as tiny dots in the shimmering heat coming up off faraway turn four.

They came barreling down the front straight, chins on the tanks and left hands gripping the fork tubes, the roar of voices in the grandstands marking their progress, the confused knot of bikes and riders dissolving into discrete shapes, jockeying for position, darting this way and that, testing, probing, drafting.

As they separated into Brelsford and Scott and Rayborn and Mann, the frantic thunder of the unmuffled engines rose to a shattering roar. Then one by one the riders snapped the throttles shut, dropped steel-shod boots off stubby pegs onto the track, slick and black with rubber, the famed "blue groove," began feeding in the throttle again, balancing the rear tire on the knife edge separating traction and disaster, blowing by one after the other with a concussive wham wham wham like the shock wave of jets flying right on the deck, the sound rocking me back, then fading, fading, until they disappeared down the back straight, leaving me standing on wobbly knees, as dazed and euphoric as a teenager after his first kiss.

I never forgot that feeling, and I hope I never do. The Mile is gone now. So is Hayward, and Fremont, Hall’s Ranch, and Ascot, where I once saw Mert Lawwill lean his Harley over so far in turns one and two that when he picked it up again for the back straight there was dirt on his left number plate.

I went to the last Ascot half-mile, on September 29, 1990, and took along a wooden-handled garden trowel and an apothecary jar in a backpack. After the main event was over, and the riders started rolling their bikes back to the pits for the last time ever, I dug a big divot out of the fast line in turn one, took it home, and put it on the shelf next to another jar with a slice of The Mile's blue groove, in which the imprint of tire tread was still visible.

There aren't any flat-track races in the part of the country where I live now, and I haven't found the time to travel to any others, so I haven't been to one in years. But any time I want to remember what it was like, all I have to do is look at those jars of dirt. And even if I never see another flat-track race, well, I'll always have San Jose.

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