Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Dire Straights

Twenty-three years ago today, I had one of those life-changing—almost life-ending—moments that can sometimes divide your life into “before” and “after” stages.

In 1986, someone at Cycle Guide got the idea to round up a number of current bikes, take them all to Willow Springs Raceway, and try to find the best-handling one in the bunch. So one day we all trooped out to Willow, a track I never liked much and liked even less before the day was out.

The drill was simple. All the bikes were lined up along the pit lane. We—me, Marc Cook, Jim Miller, Mike Gillies, Dain Gingerelli, and Wes Cooley, who was our “hired gun” at a time when every moto-mag boasted a genuine go-fast guy in its masthead—would hop on one, cut a few laps around the track, come in, swap bikes, and go out again until we’d ridden all of them. There were some specific tests set up for later, involving weaving around cones and things like that, but you can’t put a bunch of motojournalists in close proximity to a race track and a lot of fast motorcycles belonging to someone else and not expect the journos to go out and burn off some adrenalin first.

I’d ridden four or five bikes by the time I got on the 600 Ninja. Its big selling feature for that year was its 16-inch front wheel; 16-inchers had been appearing on race bikes lately, and several manufacturers were experimenting with them to quicken up the handling of their sportbikes, with mixed results. Some bikes worked better, others just got twitchy and scary. I seem to recall that John Ulrich was writing about crashes allegedly caused by 16-inch wheels in Cycle News around that time.

At any rate, I went out on the Ninja and took a lap or two to get up to speed. As I said, I never really liked Willow. I never got the rhythm of the track down to where I could string together more than two or three turns without some huge mid-course correction. It’s the only track I’ve ever had that problem with.

I came off the last big sweeper onto the main straight that runs past the pits. I glanced down at the speedo and saw about 140 indicated. I held the throttle open until my braking point, then sat up and squeezed the front brake lever. And that’s when it all went bad.

Memory is a funny thing. I won’t swear any of what I remember next actually happened, because some of it doesn’t seem possible. Or maybe it's just too weird to think it really happened that way.

White smoke billowed up through the fairing, swirling around the instruments and the handlebars—tire smoke. The bars slapped side to side so quickly and with such force that I couldn’t hold onto them. Before I could process all this, everything went black.

It stayed black for a while. I distinctly heard a small voice say, “Don’t worry. It’ll be all right in a minute.” This voice came from inside my head. It was very calm, and I trusted it.

I came to abruptly, gasping like a beached fish. Every breath I took was agony, forcing knives into my side. I was on my back in the dirt, lying on sharp, baseball-sized rocks with the desert sun beating down on me. I was terribly thirsty.

Wes Cooley was standing over me. He was in his leathers, and he was laughing. I prefer to think it was out of relief that I wasn't dead. With every breath I barked in pain like a seal. Each bark hurt like hell, and I barked even louder. Maybe that's why Wes was laughing; he thought it was funny. I probably would have thought it was funny, too, if it had been him on the ground instead of me.

Someone must have taken my helmet off, but I don’t remember who it was or how they did it. The ambulance Miller had hired for the day arrived. When they put me on the backboard the pain was agonizing. The ride to the hospital in nearby Lancaster seemed to take hours, when in fact it took about 20 minutes. Every bump in the road shoved spears into my side.

My next memory is of lying on an exam table after they cut my leathers off. At that point I didn’t know which was worse, the pain or the thirst. Then they left me alone. No one came for a long time. I called out. No one answered. I asked for water. No one came.

Finally two men in white arrived. I assume they were doctors. Maybe they had taken X-rays by now; I don’t remember. My shoulder was dislocated, one of them said, and they were going to pop it back in. He wrapped a towel around my shoulder and pulled it taut, while the other one grabbed my arm with both hands. Because the collarbone and most of the ribs on that side were broken, there was little holding me together but skin and muscle. He said, "On three," but I blacked out before I heard it.

Over the next couple of days a lot of things happened that I don’t recall clearly. They involved X-rays and pills and lots of doctors saying “Hmmm...” Mary, who was my partner at the time, came to Lancaster. She stayed with me at the hospital during the day, and in a local motel at night; Miller put the motel on the Cycle Guide tab.

Mary was my reality check, and my mama lion. They had me on enough drugs to light up a Grateful Dead concert, and I didn’t know which way was up most of the time. Mary says one day I sat up in bed and tried to catch butterflies. On another occasion an obnoxious nurse bustled into the room and asked for—or rather demanded—a urine sample. I said I didn’t have one for her just then. She insisted. I declined again. She insisted again, this time thrusting the sample bottle at me. I threatened loudly to punch her face in if she didn’t go the hell away and leave me alone.

If I sounded like a combative drunk it’s no wonder, given how many painkillers they were pumping into me every day. The nurse huffed out of the room. Mary went after her. Words of some kind were exchanged with someone, and that nurse never came back to my room.

The next several months can be boiled down into a few sentences. My injuries were extensive: lots of broken ribs on my right side, a couple of fractured vertebrae, a dislocated shoulder, a torn-up rotator cuff, a separated shoulder tendon, two fractures in the right collarbone, and some abrasions that no one seemed to care much about; a couple of weeks later one of the scabs on the back of my wrist fell off and there was a small rock under it, probably picked up as I slid down the track.

Piecing it together after the fact, it's apparent I grabbed too much front brake that day as I approached turn one and locked up the front wheel. I got spit off the bike and hit the pavement at about 120 or 130. I was wearing a brand new Arai helmet; I hit head-first hard enough to crack the shell in two places. Marcel Fortney—Cycle Guide’s ad guy and a genuinely good human being who died way too soon in January of 2007 at the age of 49—later told me he’d seen the crash as he walked along the track toward turn one. I slid a long, long way, he said, clear off the end of the straight and out into the rocky infield.

I always prided myself on being good on the brakes. I had to be, since I was almost always the biggest rider in the 250 Novice class; there was no way I was going to beat anyone out of the corners, so I made it a point to do it on the way in. But I wasn’t racing anyone that day at Willow when I reined in the little Ninja so hard it bucked me off.

I’m not sure whether it speaks to my determination to bounce back from adversity, or my tenuous grip on sanity, but five months later, there I was doing a buck-sixty on an FZR1000 at Circuit Paul Ricard in France, and three months after that I hit the deck again, at a vintage race in Daytona, when some clown trying to win practice squeezed between me and the haybales on the inside of a corner and clipped my handlebar, sending me and a borrowed Ducati 250 spinning down the track.

But even though I went back to Willow Springs several more times for stories in the magazine, I never again rode the track. I may be crazy, but I’m not stupid.

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