Take it to the Limit

Thirty years later, the producer remembers the film that captured racing history

By Peter Starr, Photography by From the Peter Starr collection

In 1980, the motorcycle racing world was casting its gaze on Daytona. The best competitors from four continents came to ride the most sophisticated machinery the era had to offer. Within those ranks were the legends: Roberts, Baker, Sheene, Hailwood, DeCoster, Collins, Penhall-all of whom were the vital forces of racing, the best of the "good old days," now largely the silver wraiths whose accomplishments still haunt the sport. That was 30 years ago, multiple lifetimes in racing, and a single lifetime ago for a movie about the sport, Take it to the Limit, and for its filmmaker: me.

Well-reviewed by both the conventional newspapers and the motorcycle press, and winner of top honors at the Chicago and Houston International Film Festivals, Take it to the Limit never received widespread distribution, largely because of the old Hollywood story: Producer makes film, distributor shows film, film makes lots of money, distributor runs away with money, film is buried in legal hassles, producer never sees money and film languishes in near-oblivion. Much of the story is covered in detail in my book, Taking it to the Limit: 20 Years of Making Motorcycle Movies.

The promises of youth, in filmmaking as well as motorcycle racing, so often go unfulfilled. In this film however, we captured some of the most amazing moments of motorcycle racing history. When we were shooting, we were just out to make the best motorcycle film we could, standing in the right spot, pointing the cameras, rolling the film and hoping that our chosen riders hit pay dirt that day. We weren't disappointed. Roberts, Baker, Hailwood, et al performed some of the most memorable feats that weekend. If luck in motorcycle racing is 90 percent preparation, the percentages in filmmaking are no different.

From the opening scenes of David Emde riding a Yamaha XS11 at terrifying speeds along a closed road north of Ojai, there can be little doubt as to what this film is about. The title is more than appropriate. We were at the Indy Mile to film Rex Beauchamp, Corky Keener and Gary Scott when Kenny Roberts stunned us, and his competition, with one of the most exciting rides in dirt-track history. It was a magic moment, and we were lucky to capture it. That moment has become so iconic that Yamaha recently used that segment of the film in its video testimonial to that piece of history. The yowl of that four-cylinder two-stroke piercing the normal thunder of the Harley-Davidson V-twins commands a part of my memory equal to the sound of Bob McIntyre fighting it out with John Surtees, both on four-cylinder roadracers, on the 170-mph drop from Kate's Cottage to Creg-ny-Baa in the Isle of Man in '57. Once heard, never forgotten. When Kenny Roberts returned to Indy last year to ride that TZ750 again, the fans were screaming to re-live that moment with him.

And who could have forecast Steve Baker flying to England in '76 for the prestigious Race of the Year, pitted against some of the greatest world-class roadracers, including Sheene, Read, Agostini and Grant, and so dominating the event that we had to edit the film judiciously to make it seem exciting! I had known both Baker and Sheene for some time, and it brought me great pleasure to bring them together for this film sequence. Steve is still with us and as modest and unassuming as ever, considering he was America's first roadracing world champion. He was one of the few riders that gave Roberts fits when they raced against each other. Sheene, on the other hand, passed away from cancer in 2003. I last saw him only a few months prior when he won a vintage race at Donington Park riding a Manx Norton with the same skill and style that made him a two-time world champion.

By Peter Starr
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