Saturday, June 27, 2009

"Mr. Skynyrd, tear down this wall!"

Yes, I know this has nothing to do with motorcycles. I don't care. It made me laugh so hard I coughed up a lung.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Just Flat Amazing

I just watched the Springfield Mile, which I taped off Speed TV last Sunday. I’d been saving it, like a tasty dessert, and tonight the time seemed right to indulge myself.

I’ve been a flattrack fan for many years, but since I moved to Oregon I’ve managed to see only one race, a National TT at Castle Rock, Washington, in the late 1980s. Dave Despain was the announcer for the Springfield broadcast, and they could not have chosen a better person for the job. Despain knows flattrack like Vin Scully knows baseball. Working with him was Steve Morehead, a racer I once saw do the near impossible—or so it would have been for me—at Ascot Speedway in Gardena, California.

It was a night race, and practice commenced in the afternoon. Dirt tracks like Ascot change with the temperature and the humidity, so that the surface you practice and time-trial on might well disappear by the time the heat races and main finally flag off.

Ascot was like that. It’s a little known fact that they got the dirt for the track from a nearby cemetery. Coming as it did from as much as six feet under, it had a lot of clay in it, and when it was not too dry, not too moist, but just right, it offered phenomenal traction.

Morehead went out in practice and his bike was all over the place. It wouldn’t steer going into the corners, and it wouldn’t hook up coming out of them. It was full-on dark, with the lights lining the track blazing, as he went out for his last session. He might have been hoping the track would come to him as night fell and the surface got tackier, but it didn’t.

I was in the pits that night. A lot of people think there’s nothing particularly complicated about flattrack racing—go straight, turn left, go straight, turn left; repeat until checkered flag—but like a lot of things that look simple at first glance, it’s not. Bike set-up is critical, as is knowing the track. As I walked past Morehead’s pit he rolled in, put his bike up on the stand, and dove into his toolbox. In the space of five minutes, he slid the fork tubes up in the clamps to quicken up the steering; changed the gearing, which also changed the wheelbase; put on a different set of shocks, which changed the rear ride height and thus the front/rear weight distribution; and changed the air pressure in both of the tires.

The rule of thumb in race tuning is never change more than one thing at a time. That way, if the bike is faster or slower, you know exactly what you did that made it that way. There wasn't time to do it that way, though—there never is at a flattrack race—so Morehead went ahead and did everything at once.

And damned if they weren't all the right things to do. The bike hooked up, it steered, and it was fast. Morehead had a good night, I recall. So did I. I’d seen a master at work. What looked like a desperate hail-Mary move was in fact the practical application of years of experience. I never forgot it.

Years later, I got in touch with Morehead to see if he’d be willing to answer some questions about flattrack racing. I was writing my second mystery novel, Hotshoe, which takes place on the flattrack circuit, and I wanted to make sure I got all the racing details right.

He was good enough to spend an hour or so on the phone with me, and at some point in the rambling conversation I mentioned that night at Ascot. He remembered it. He remembered every change he’d made to the bike, too. And to my everlasting astonishment, he even remembered me, standing there watching him, taking in every detail.

So flattrack really is very simple after all. Go straight, turn left. Remember the minutest detail of every race you’ve ever run, including the track conditions, the chassis set-up and gearing of the bike, and some guy you’ve never seen before or since standing there gawking as you pretty much change everything on your bike but the gas cap. Go straight, turn left. Repeat until checkered flag.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

5 Million Readers!

I received this press release this morning via email:


Members Will Band Together to Ride on June 29

MILWAUKEE – (June 16, 2009) On Monday, June 29, 2009, Harley Owners Group (H.O.G.) members around the world will band together in a singular challenge, to log a cumulative five million riding miles by the day’s end.

Following the phenomenal success of last year’s inaugural Million Mile Monday, which tripled the original goal of one million miles ridden by H.O.G. members to 3,000,960 miles, the goal for this year’s ride on June 29 has been stretched to five million miles.

I like riding motorcycles as much as the next guy. But I can't help but wonder, with gas prices at their typical summer high and global warming on the minds of many scientists, if convincing a bunch of people to go out and ride just to reach an arbitrary mileage mark is a good idea.

If it were for some charity, I'd probably feel better about it. But the only organizations it seems likely to benefit are oil companies, which stand to make a killing on gas, and Harley-Davidson, which is hurting right now and wouldn't mind if its customers used up a few more tires and oil filters this year, and took their bikes to Harley dealers to have them replaced.

Or maybe I'm overthinking this. Maybe what I need to do is get with the program. So here's what I'm proposing.

I'd like to get 5 million readers of this blog by Monday, June 29. To do this I'll need you to email everyone you know and tell them to visit Tread Life. And unlike the oil companies, and Harley, I'm not making a dime off this stunt, since I don't get paid to write this blog no matter how many people read it.

Which means that unlike Five Million Mile Monday, this benefits a non-profit organization. Me.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Rhymes With Crazy

I’m not an entirely happy camper lately. My back has been giving me hell, and I haven’t been riding much because of it. But there’s someone in the house who’s not bothered by this, and that’s Tread Life’s editorial assistant and morale officer, Daisy.

I got Daisy nine years ago from the local animal shelter. I’d been looking for a buddy for my Golden Retriever, Winzer, and stopped by the shelter to see if there were any likely candidates.

I walked down the row of pens containing dogs that were either barking loudly enough to deafen a rock, or cowering in the corner as far as possible from strangers like me. Daisy was different. She sat silently by the door of the pen, her tail twitching tentatively, looking sad and scared, and yet a bit hopeful.

I leaned down for a closer look, and saw her left ear had a wad of what appeared to be Scotch tape on it, holding together a ragged tear in the tip of the ear about an inch long. Some sort of goo had been slopped on the ear before the tape was applied. It looked like first aid applied by an office temp. It’s a good thing there hadn’t been a stapler handy.

The shelter worker told me that was the way she’d been found. No one knew how old she was, but they guessed about six months. She looked for all the world like a very young Golden Retriever, the exact same color as Winzer, and with the same hair, of the same length, in all the same places.

But I wasn’t ready to take anyone home that day, so I left. Next time I drove by the shelter I stopped in again, and Daisy was still there. It struck me as odd that no one had taken her yet. She was apparently well behaved, and as cute as a dog gets.

I remarked on this to the shelter worker. She couldn’t understand it, either. It was a shame, too, she said, because Daisy had been there a while, and if no one took her home in the next week or so her next stop was the small room out back, where dogs go in but don’t come out.

I think at that point I might have been ready to take her home, but I left and went home to think about it some more. Adding another dog to the family was a big deal. Would she and Winzer get along? Would I have the time to train her to the extent that I’d trained Winzer? Could I afford to feed and pay the vet bills on two dogs? (Money was tight back then; but when isn’t it?)

It wasn't long before I decided everything would work out somehow. That, and the thought of her getting The Needle made up my mind. I picked up Daisy at the shelter, paid the adoption fee, and took her—torn ear and all—straight to my vet, who pronounced her healthy and gave her a series of shots; there was no way of telling when or if she’d had shots last, but there was no harm in repeating them.

It was while we were sitting in the vet’s waiting room as the paperwork was being filled out that Daisy got her name. The rabies certificate had a space on it for the dog’s name. At that point I hadn’t picked one out yet, figuring I’d let her tell me what she should be named in her own time.

But bureaucracy would not be denied—no name, no rabies certificate. The other people in the waiting room began suggesting names. Most of them made me want to puke. Then I thought about the comic strip "Blondie," and the dog in it. The dog at my feet looked just like that dog.

“Daisy,” I said. “Her name is Daisy.”

As I said, that was nine years ago. Since then, several things have become apparent. First, Daisy is part Golden Retriever and part something else—maybe Border Collie, but certainly something high-drive and obsessive.

Second, she was as big as she was going to get the first time I saw her. She weighed 35 pounds at her last vet visit, and her weight has never varied more than a couple of pounds either way.

Third, she is a very smart dog. I haven’t trained her to the level I did Winzer, who earned an AKC CD title, and one leg of his CDX before both of us got tired of the fussy precision of the sport and hung it up in favor of getting good at chasing tennis balls. But Daisy does all the things a well-behaved dog needs to do—sits, stays, comes when she’s called—and does them willingly.

And fourth, she’s a lot happier when I don’t spend hours riding a motorcycle, but instead hang around the house throwing things for her to bring back so I can throw them again.

I have to admit I kind of like it, too. Winzer passed last year, leaving Daisy an only dog. Since then, free of the anxiety of having to share my attention, she’s become a calmer, more mature dog, who no longer tries to run away or dig under fences, and who heels nicely on a slack leash, and likes to go with me to the coffee shop and sit at a table outside and lean against my leg, sniffing the breeze.

So although I’m not happy about not riding, it’s not as bad as it could be. Daisy has been keeping me amused. But even she has to sleep sometime—she’s napping on the floor behind me as I write this—and while she’s dozing I’m wondering just how she’d like riding in a sidecar.

Because I have to believe that if riding motorcycles is as much fun as it is, and dogs are as much fun as they are, how much more fun would the two them together be?

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Thursday, June 4, 2009

You Should Write A Book

It’s a fact of the human condition that nobody is ever satisfied with what they are, what they have, or what they look like. This is why magazine writers often aspire to write books.

It can’t be for the money.

Some years ago I was approached by a book publisher in Minnesota to write a book about high-performance Harleys. The editor there had gotten my name from the editor of one of the Harley magazines I write for. The magazine editor, having himself been a freelancer for many years, guessed or knew I was hurting for money, and nominated me for the book job. (He was also too smart to take on the job himself.)

I hadn’t written a book of this type before. My two mystery novels were fiction, and fiction is marketed thus: first you write the book, then you see if anyone wants to publish it. The proposed Harley book was non-fiction, which is typically sold first, usually on the basis of an outline, or assigned to someone who will produce a book to the publisher’s specifications and liking, then written.

The publisher that approached me specialized in car books—high-performance modifications, racing, history, how-to, that sort of thing. Someone there had decided to dip a toe into the Harley market, which at the time was robust and growing. None of the authors in their stable had any bike experience, so they went looking for someone who did, and found me.

After some back and forth about the style and the focus and the content, I signed a contract. I had six months to deliver a finished product, and was given an advance against royalties. That’s a sum of money that’s meant to tide an author over during the process of writing the book. When the book comes out, and royalties from sales start adding up, that money has to be “earned back” before the author gets any more. In other words, if the advance is $5,000, the first $5,000 in royalties the book earns go toward paying off the advance. After that, royalties come to the author in the form of a check for actual money.

I started in on the book with the intention of doing my usual freelance work at the same time. That turned out to be harder than I thought. The book sucked up more and more of my time and, more important, my energy. Soon it began to suck up my bank account, too, as the advance ran out and no money came into replace it.

Along the way I grew frustrated with the Harley aftermarket. I’d have thought that calling up some company that makes wheels or engines or some other high-dollar part for Harleys and saying I’d like to put pictures of their products in my book would have elicited gratitude if not outright joy, and the prompt delivery of said pictures. Wrong.

You simply have no idea how hard it was to give away what amounted to free advertising. Some companies said they’d send art, then didn’t. Others were suspicious. What’ll it cost us? Nothing. Really? Really. Well, I don't know... One company rep got angry when I asked him to mail me slides of his ignition modules. He was upset about having to pay the postage.

The book dragged on into its fifth, then its sixth month. The deadline passed. My editor gave me more time. He did it so casually I got the impression none of his authors ever met their deadlines. If they’d all had to go through what I was going through, it’s a good bet they didn’t.

I turned in the book two months late. By then I was more than willing to return to what I had previously thought of as the drudgery of my freelance magazine work. Several more months went by. Page proofs—photocopies of the book in its pre-press form—arrived. I read them, repaired the errors the in-house copyeditor had inserted, and sent them back.

About a year after I submitted the book, an advance copy appeared on my doorstep. It looked good. It could have been better—show me a writer who’s written anything he thinks can’t be improved, and I’ll show you someone who’s not really a writer—but it would do.

Prior to signing the contract to write the book, I had talked to my editor at length about projected sales, distribution, and a lot of other things that were relevant to how much money the book would earn me over the following years. I don’t write for fun—not often, anyway—and if the project wasn’t going to make a profit, I wasn't interested. I received a number of assurances that, in my innocence, I believed.

As it turned out, the book was a flop. It came out in October, right before the holiday season, a big time for booksellers. Except one of the big chain book stores went through a change of personnel at about the same time, and the new guy either forgot to order any copies of my book, or decided not to. At least that’s the story I got from my editor.

Well, okay, I thought, we’ll wait until next year. But by then, my book had been “mid-listed,” bumped from the so-called front list of new books—despite no one having heard of it yet—and soon after it was effectively consigned to obscurity, otherwise known as the back list, which is one step above the table at the rear of the store marked “Any Book $2”.

Eventually I also learned that the company that published my book didn’t much believe in advertising. They had a printed catalog, and a website, and after sending out a single round of press releases to enthusiast magazines, they figured their job was done. If they ever placed a paid ad for the book anywhere, I never heard about it.

A year of my life, and about $8,000 of my own money, went into a book that is now genuinely rare. That’s because last year I got a letter from the publisher saying my book was going out of print. No further copies would be printed—this was a given, since they still had thousands of copies left over from the original print run—and the ones on hand would be recycled. I could buy up the remainders at a reduced price and sell them myself, the letter went on, or they’d be happy to ship me two cases of books free of charge.

I asked for, and received, two cases of Harley-Davidson Bolt-On Performance, which sit in my garage unopened. Every time I go out to work on the V-Strom or go for a ride, I have to walk right past them. I could move them so I don’t suffer that pang of regret the sight of them invariably triggers, but some publisher might call me someday and ask me to write a book, and I might say yes.

But believe me, that chapter of my life is over.

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