Motocross

Motocross racing came to the United States in the late 60’s, a different kind of racing from the “Scrambles”that dominated the off road competition scene where I lived. Scrambles was done on a bare dirt track, with a jump and both left & right turns. Motocross used natural terrain, over hills and across creeks and was done in “motos” of 45 minutes, not the 10 lap 15 minute Scrambles heats. I had done a little Scrambling at a tiny track in Wurtland Kentucky, years before with a 250cc Ducati, with less than stellar success. ( See the previous post “Ducati Scrambler” )

This new fad, swept scrambles and nearly everything else off the magazine pages. My new heros were names like Joel Robert (a Belgian, so pronounced “Ro-Bear”), Roger DeCoster , Gerrit Wolsink, Heiki Mikkola and others I cannot remember, spell or even pronounce now. I was singularly untalented at motocross, but that didn’t keep me from trying. There was a small track in Proctorville Ohio, just across the river from Huntington, West Va. where races were held with some frequency. With help from my brother and his welding rig, I made a trailer for my Suzuki TS 250 dual sport so that I could strip it to racing form and haul it to the track. The trailer was welded up from 2 inch angle iron, using a steel pipe as an axle and the unique American Motors Rambler hubs that could be stubbed onto such a pipe by even a welder so inexperienced as I. The deck was 3/4″ plywood, painted with marine varnish and the rails were also plywood bolted down to the deck with angle iron brackets. I’m not much of an engineer, but I can make something sturdy. The sturdiness came at the expense of weight, however, as any of you readers can easily add up from the ingredient list above. I was to pull this device, loaded with the somewhat heavy Suzuki, with my car at the time, a 1970 Volkswagon Karmann Ghia convertible….not exactly a powerhouse of a vehicle even when unburdened by trailers. I’m not sure but it is possible that the weight of the trailer and bike was approaching that of the car.

The bike’s race prep consisted mainly of acquiring an oversize set of knobby tires and a number plate with “74” chosen because that was what I could make easily with black electrical tape.

Driving to the track was an adventure in physics as the little car struggled to deal with its load and the load tried its best to overcome the car that was restricting its forward progress. We lurched on in this fashion for the 30 miles or so to the track, found our way to the pit area (just grass, marked off with tape) and unloaded. All around were other new acolytes to the faith of Motocross, some as green and unprepared as me, others with racebikes, real boots and jerseys like those on the heros in the magazines. The crackle of two stroke exhaust was a constant background with the wonderful smell of burning castor oil in the air. I set off on a practice lap before the track got crowded. I was out there, going up the hill, down through the creek, on an actual motocross track….this was great ! I shot down the short straightaway leading to a left hand curve in the loamy track, holding on the gas until the last possible second, carrying more speed than I thought possible, hit the brakes just before disaster….and then two racebikes came around me on either side, still on full throttle, like jet fighters parting formation around a hapless Cessna. They disappeared into the turn, changed direction like slot cars and were gone. Maybe I was out of my league here.

Still, youth knows little discouragement in putting itself in harms way, so I continued, with little success but great enthusiasm. I recall one race in which I, far back in the pack, was competing with another back marker similar to myself and I decided I could take him at the next jump, just before the sharp left that started up the long hill. I pinned the throttle as we came to the crest and soared farther and higher than ever before….not just past my rival, but over his head. He made the landing and the left turn. I made a landing that crashed down so hard my handlebars rotated in the clamps, my chin slammed into the bolts on top of the steering head and the world went black for just a moment. When I realized where I was, the bike was still upright and moving, so I tried to pull the bars back up to continue….and that’s when I saw the blood. It was all over the lime green tank, as if someone had chosen that particular spot to slaughter a cow. I thought “Where did that come from?” and just as quickly realized that I was the only likely source since I was the only one on the bike. I pulled over to the side of the track, removed my glove and put my hand up to my chin, finding not the smooth surface I expected but an amorphous warm wet hole. I left the bike where it sat and began walking up to the start-finish area where the officials and the ambulance were stationed. As I walked into the area, people would come up to me , look at my face and immediately cringe….not exactly what I had hoped for as a reaction. The ambulance had just left the track with another unfortunate competitor, so all that was left was the local constable who had come to offer his services as “security”. He was an older fellow, probably in his 40’s, with a uniform consisting of a blue shirt with his name on one pocket and a badge on the other. His vehicle was a 10 year old Chevy 4-door with a classic old-style “bubble gum” blue light on the top, wire snaking across the surface and in a window to the cigarette lighter plug. He took one look at me and I could see this was the chance he had been waiting for all his life.

He put me in the back seat of the Chevy and started down the dirt road to the highway. When we hit pavement, he floored the gas, flicked the blue light switch and got on his radio to the highway patrol. He told them that he was transporting a badly injured person to the hospital in Huntington and needed the bridge across the river into town cleared of traffic. I looked over his shoulder and saw that the rocking, weaving sedan was going 90 mph down the two lane road. I wondered if I had survived the motocross accident only to be killed fulfilling this man’s fantasy. I put my hand on the seat between us and said that I wasn’t hurt all that badly and we didn’t need to be going this fast. He growled over his shoulder in his best Clint Eastwood/Broderick Crawford imitation (and I’m not making this up!) “You just shut up and bleed, son, I’ll drive.”

We got to the huge bridge, normally thronged with traffic, to find Highway patrol cars at each end, lights ablaze, holding open our path. The Constable shot down the open bridge like the Blues Brothers through Chicago and on into Cabell Huntington hospital where the Emergency Department, having been alerted to the incoming tragedy, was somewhat let down by seeing a skinny young man, holding a hand to his bloody chin, walking in through the doors under his own power. Twenty or so stitches later, I walked out, with a broken tooth still to be dealt with by a sadistic dentist, but that’s another story.

About johngrice

Retired small town lawyer, lifelong motorcyclist, traveler and old guy sitting around thinking.
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