The More Things Change... | Emeritus

By Jeff Karr, Photography by Motorcyclist Archives

When Art Friedman left Cycle Guide to join Motorcyclist in 1978, he lobbied for me to join him. Editor Dale Boller rolled the dice, and I joined Ken Vreeke as a novice road tester and eager photo model. Our office was a run-down wooden building just off Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood; we weren’t in the big Petersen Publishing high-rise next door, where some people reportedly wore suits. We were out of sight and out of mind, with an endless supply of new motorcycles, custom leathers with our names on them and a company gas card. It was a good place to be a 21-year-old.

Camaraderie was high, and the daily 5-minute ride to lunch was filled with much hooning and mayhem. Though we were wing-footed Gods (really, we were!), Ken and I derived great pleasure from riding as if we had no skill whatsoever, doing senselessly un- coordinated downshifts, hopping and bucking like ham-fisted newbies. While simulating a stuck throttle in a restaurant parking lot, I purposely hopped a Honda V65 Magna over a curb, which unfortunately cracked the sump, dumping 3.7 quarts of hot oil onto the ground. Luckily the PR contact at Honda was the late Dirk Vandenberg, the inspiration for the fictional Last Page character “Dangerous Dirk Dundenberg,” and perhaps the only PR person on earth who would think a pointless stunt like that was actually funny.

One of the great Motorcyclist rituals was the annual staff tour, which Art would plan meticulously. It was hugely anticipated, since it meant that all of our meals would be paid for by Petersen Publishing, and all we had to do was ride all day, every day, for a week. We mostly followed fabulous roads, but on the unavoidable sections of long Interstate, I turned out to be prone to narcolepsy. To pass the time, I would see how close I could come to Art without our bikes actually touching. When that got dull, I took control of his throttle with my left hand—and found that synchronizing two throttles wakes you right up. Pretty soon Art was riding hands-off, with me operating his bike with my left hand. (Do not attempt this at home!) I learned everything I know about countersteering doing this. Soon this, too, became boring, so Art took the opportunity to put a fresh roll of Kodachrome in his Nikon while I “drove” his bike for him. Very trusting, that Art...

When I was hired in ’78, dirtbikes were really pretty good, with long-travel suspension and nice power. But streetbikes were fairly awful. Most of the literbikes were heavy and limp and wobbled if you pushed them very hard, and most were way short on cornering clearance. And by today’s standards, they were dead-slow. A ’79 Honda CBX only made 86 horsepower, but at the time we thought it was pretty sporty. Nothing could get into the 10-second bracket in the quarter-mile, and as the official dragstrip tester, I did my best to make that happen. All manner of cruelty was inflicted on the testbikes, with a typical machine getting 20-30 runs and receiving a generous dousing with a garden hose after each pass to cool the steaming-hot, air-cooled engine for the next launch. It was poor-man’s liquid cooling, worth a couple of tenths of a second or more. To anyone who may have purchased a used Motorcyclist testbike during that era, I apologize.

Things began to change quickly during the ’80s, with bikes like the liquid-cooled Kawasaki Ninja 900 and Yamaha FZ750 showing up. And at long last, the fastest bikes could comfortably get into the 10s. It was a good time to be at Motorcyclist. Thinking back on it, I’m amazed at all the things that went right during the time I worked at the magazine. Stuff like riding four superbikes into a narrow corner side-by-side with Nick Ienatsch, Mitch Boehm and Keith Code at roadrace velocity. We made dozens of passes using both lanes of an open public road, with photographer Rich Cox assailing our manhood after every pass. Good fun!

After nine years of such adventure, I developed a clear sense that I’d been getting away with an awful lot, for an awful long time. And that maybe it was time to leave the fun to younger guys—like Nick and Mitch and Brent Ross—who couldn’t believe their incredible luck at having an endless supply of new motorcycles, custom leathers with their names on them and a company gas card.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

By Jeff Karr
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