In the summer 0f 1965, when I was 16, there was a dragstrip in Proctorville, Ohio, across the river from Huntington, West Virginia near where I grew up. It served as an occasional Saturday amusement for teenagers and others who wanted a dose of adrenaline, gasoline and noise to shake off the doldrums of small-town life. It was small strip, just a quarter mile ribbon of not-very-smooth asphalt and a bit of runoff room at the end. As I recall it, there were a few bleachers on one side and a rudimentary wooden timing tower overlooking the track. Along the other side were”pits, actually just a series of demarcated spaces along the “pit road” leading to the starting line. The strip ran mostly local cars, allowing anyone to bring whatever they had built in the back yard, or even the family sedan, smear a white shoe-polish number on the back window and have a go.
As a diversion, the owner of the track sometimes would run motorcycles, which he called “graveyard ponies” over the tinny loudspeaker, near the end of the day There weren’t clearly defined classes, as such, just big and little, which had some strange matchups. In those days, Harleys dominated of course, but the little Euro bikes were making some inroads. The crowds (perhaps an overstatement of the attendance) sometimes booed when a “Limey” BSA or Triumph would embarrass the HD’s by several lengths at the finish line.
I was there one Saturday on my Ducati Monza 250 when my peers began to rag me to compete. We had our own strip, a marked off piece of pavement on Rt. 168 outside of Catlettsburg, and my little Ducati often won our impromptu drags there, so they were eager to see it go against what we all considered real competition. After all, they had numbers on them, didn’t they?
I lined up beside a Honda 305 Super Hawk, piloted by another of near my own age. We nervously watched the “Christmas Tree” lights blink down, my first time to see them from this position. Suddenly the Honda took off in a flurry of noise as I sat there confused because the green light in my lane, the focus of all my attention had not yet come on. When it did, a split second after the 305’s departure, I dumped the clutch and began trying to catch the bike now several lengths down the asphalt. I wound the little 250 as far as it would go in each gear, gaining ground all the while, but still short by a half a bike at the finish line. As I shut down and headed for the pit row, my disappointment was quickly displaced by dread as I realized that my bike was not running properly. There was a soft “phtt”noise with each stroke and I couldn’t keep it running without some throttle. As I got into our pit area, my friends shouted that I had to go back to the line. The Honda had “jumped the light” invalidating the run, and we must do it again. Still dazed and confused, I pottered up to the line again, next to the Honda rider, both of us watching the lights. This time we got off together on green and headed down the strip. The Ducati strained, but still stayed ahead of the Honda all the way to the end. I chopped the throttle and turned down the pit lane.
Back at the pit, I was again urged to go over to the tower, this time to pick up my trophy. It was a wooden pillar, about two feet tall, with a brass bike and rider on top. The profile was that of a Grand Prix rider, as in the photos of the European racers I had seen in Cycle World. This was before everything Bike had to be portrayed as a chopper-esque V-Twin with feet-forward rider. The trophy’s image was far more professional looking than the reality of the recipient, a skinny, spotty-faced teenager in an ill-fitting vinyl jacket and jeans.
I tied the trophy proudly to the gas tank and we set out across the bridge into Huntington on our way home. Half way across the bridge, I realized that I could not take this prize home to display for to do so would be to admit to my cautious parents that I had been racing. And, in a rare moment of teenage introspection, I realized, it was the bike that had won the race, not really me The little Italian single, piloted by such an amateur, had prevailed over the larger, more powerful Honda even hobbled by this injury. It was as if a wounded horse had finished the Derby on sheer heart alone.
The hissing noise continued with each cycle of the piston on the way home, telling of the exhaust valve I had bent on the first ill-fated run. That valve sat on the base of the trophy for many years and is on a shelf in my garage today as a reminder. I returned to that track a few more times, in a car, but never won on four wheels. I didn’t have the heart to put the Ducati through it again.