Hammer & Tongs / Vintage Dirt Racing Northwest - written 1999

“If you could race ANY bike, you wouldn’t race THAT bike, would you?” said my friend Dale the other day.

• Dale Franklin is an longtime Road Racer, as was I, although I haven’t turned wheel in anger on pavement since 1996. But I have been Racing, harder than ever, and that’s what this article is about- the fantastic motorcycle sport we call VINTAGE MOTOCROSS.

• The two of us laughed about it afterwards, because I think as long as I’m racing, I don’t care so much what I’m racing. The bike in question was my friend Lorraine ’s 1969 DT1 Yamaha. I’ve been racing it in a class called Pre70, (i.e. bikes built before 1970) It may have been regarded as a funny device not to be taken seriously when it came out in the summer of 67, especially by English Motorcycle Companies. And it has a power curve which isn’t a curve at all, but a straight line drawn with a ruler diagonally across a rectangle from one corner to the other: it’s like a rheostat.... But it has been surprisingly fast and stable- and has not missed a beat all year. I’m trying to beat better riders on BSAs , Bultacos, Triumphs and Husqvarnas.

Vintage Motocross VDR Style is bizarre to those used to the normal club hierarchy, at least at first. To begin with it’s not a democracy, it’s a monarchy. We have a King- he quietly says what goes, and that’s that. There’s no arguing, no hibbling, no voting, no fooling around with committees or endless hours at the local pizza place for the monthly board meetings. I’m not saying it’s better...but it sure does take less time. It helps that the rules don’t change- the “rulebook” is about six sentences long; it almost fits on the poster! Furthermore for the Rider, there’s no license to buy, no tech, no tags required, no AMA card to worry about. We race all day from 9 sharp till about 5. None of this fooling about until 11:30 and quitting at 3.

The track is new and different each time, there are no rocks AT ALL. So tires last for years on end. The weather is almost always cool and cloudy- the old idea that winter = rain isn't true certainly where we race- and a little moisture makes the track set up perfectly for sweeet berms developing as the day progresses. Every couple years we get a muddy day or even snow once, as in the following story. It was cool.

When I originally wrote this article for a Road Racing magazine I wasn't pitching the sport as an alternative to, but as a compliment to any summer season racing, including AHRMA. Even if you're not planning to build a racing empire, (like me) it’s a very modestly priced way to get track time, and handling skill in.

VINTAGE DIRT RACING NW is the name of this club, and we have a winter season: nine races from September to May.

Vintage means 1974 Bikes or before, and then there are Evolution Classes for early long travel machines that are still air cooled, with drum brakes. My favorite thing is the variety of racing dissimilar bikes, so I take a Vintage Bike, and an Evo Bike. The year I wrote this article I was racing the ‘69 DT1, and a ‘77 YZ400. It’s a stark contrast between the bikes. The DT is low, small, beefy, whereas the YZ is tall, comfy with a muscley power curve that goes from the lower left side of the graph into outer space. Racing a big monoshock bike seems to make one faster on an older machine.

The day has a heat and a main for each class; both motos count- afternoon results count for more, breaking ties. There is an extra race at the end of every Race Day, called the Gran Prix. The GP is not for points: if you finish at all, you get a trophy.

Here’s a description I wrote of what it was like racing the Gran Prix. This is not about me being cool or anything, but about a ride I really enjoyed, and more than anything the Romance of it all.... I wrote:
The GRAN PRIX. The Gran Prix was a Wildebeest-like Thrash at the end of the day. Passing backmarkers was part of it. I was so exhausted (from just having done two motos in a row) that I said to my girlfriend that I didn’t want to go out, and she said “No one’s twisting your arm! Don’t Go!” but I dragged myself out to the start line, and wearily cast my eyes along the array of tough guys lined up on the grid. Amongst them were various compatriots, and better riders than me on cooler bikes- particularly Monty Price, a very fast, very smooth rider on a beautiful trick C&J framed TT500-

Sighing deeply a number of times, I revved my old YZ400 and with no expectations, waited for the flag. I was so spaced out that at the last moment I saw the flagman pointing slowly from one side to the other along the grid with his wound flag, as he does just before the gate drops, and quickly tried to rev the engine- I wasn’t even in gear- but I clicked into 2nd, and looked down at the gate- the YZ zoomed heavily, but not as fast as others. Maybe I wasn’t paying attention- but through the first right hander I was 2nd or 3rd or something- maybe 4th- and I followed a rider for a lap, but then that first flat tracking left-hander section and I cut underneath him and was over the tabletop first, and I remember following Monty through into the woods thinking simultaneously I’m following the Man- quick- learn how to be fast... and that was the race-

UNTIL Monty fell in front of me. Monty never falls, but it happened... (you do fall sometimes in Motocross, but unlike Road Racing you just get up, and get going as fast as you can....) It was only the second lap. Before I knew it I was leading the GP, and I remember thinking even if I stop now at least I LED the GP- and as I raced past the flagman I saw my friend George Eadie yelling and clapping for me, and I was touched.

It was now snowing and I was roaring along on the mighty YZ - it was as though I had been delivered into the past- the afternoon was dark, snow was falling in flurries and the dim road ahead lay blank... blank and bare in the moonlight, and the blood in my veins at the day’s end throbbed to my love’s refrain- my eyes were watering and I could scarcely see through my goggles, and it was getting worse. My horse was breathing fire, eyes glowing red, and I hung on for dear life- I had to get there- everything depended on this ride, and I charged ahead through the darkening storm-

I never saw anyone, although I remember thinking someone was near... there was the muffled growl of a big four stroke, and then Monty came by on the sweeper- and I carried on.

Although I was roaring forward as fast as I could, he pulled away and disappeared in the darkness. My vision was getting worse, and so as I went by my truck I tore off my goggles and threw them to one side- and then I could see fine- the snowflakes stung my eyes, but I kept my head down, and pressed on. I kept wondering where anyone was- I wanted to know whether anyone was close, how far ahead I was of the man behind- now that my goggles were gone I looked back, and the road was as deserted behind as it was ahead-

I was alone in the Wilderness.

And that’s how it ended. I pulled to a stop past the flag-

now jolted back into the present. It was just me at a VDR Race- no drama, no urgency, just me on my old Yamaha. I sat there for a time before the field appeared- my breath, in clouds, boiling out of my helmet.

©1999, 2002 Siege • italics from the 1913 Poem the Highwayman by Alfred Noyes