The Man on the Vintage German NSU Racer

Every picture tells a story.

This 60-year-old photo of a man racing in Indonesia, hanging in a California auto shop, connects the dots of a remarkable story.©Motorcyclist

The photo hanging in the lobby of Geoff Mesman’s auto-repair shop in Mission Viejo, California, showed a CBR600 rider carving a corner at Fontana Raceway—it was Geoff, age 44, having a bit of trackday fun. Seeing that image triggered a flashback to Surabaya, Indonesia, 1956. I was eight years old when my father took me to see a motorcycle race. We rode there on his German NSU 250. Dad pointed out a competitor, also on an NSU: “Dat is Mesman. Hij rijd goed.” Indeed. Mesman won the race.

Indonesia had been a Dutch colony for 400 years. Intermarriage created a subgroup of Dutch-Indonesians. That was us. And the Indonesians despised us. By 1958, things turned violent, and, with our lives at risk, dad packed up the family and immigrated to California. Was there a more ideal place for a young man to pursue a motorcycle passion?

Within days of turning 16, I bought a used 125cc Honda CB92. I rode it for two years then decided to race it. Then a letter arrived: “You are hereby ordered to report for induction into the Armed Forces of the United States.” The Army needed door-gunners for their fleet of Huey helicopters in Vietnam.

I flew my first combat mission in April 1968, at age 19. By mid-May, I’d lost three helicopters and two pilots to enemy action and a crash. To decompress from combat, some of my colleagues turned to alcohol, hookers, weed, or worse. I took a different route. At night I’d pore over a stack of Motorcyclist magazines and dream of the day I would ride again.

Frans Vandenbroek was eight years old when he first saw the man in the old black-and-white photo, racing against his father in Indonesia.©Motorcyclist

In March 1969, a second helicopter crash sent me home. I got a factory job bottling orange juice for $1.35 an hour and spent every penny on a 250cc Yamaha roadracer. After the leaders lapped me in the Novice 250 race at Daytona in 1972, I sold the Yamaha and enrolled in college.

Four years later, degree in hand, I headed for England and bought a $400 Honda CB250. The CB took me to the Isle of Man and then the Belgian Grand Prix where I met American racer Pat Hennen. Pat needed a mechanic; I needed an adventure. Three weeks later, Pat won the Grand Prix of Finland, the first American to win a World Championship event. Pat won two more GPs before his tragic crash at the Isle of Man in 1978, which ended his career and sent us both home.

Back in California, I joined Kawasaki to develop the engines that Eddie Lawson and Wayne Rainey rode to multiple Superbike championships. In my spare time, I built a 750 endurance racer. In 1982, co-rider Roger Hagie and I won the AFM 6-Hour at Riverside. Racing success at last! Then a soprano named Karen stole my heart. When two babies came, my riding days were over.

Today, Sara is 24 and rides a Husky dual-sport, while other daughter Hilary prefers a Honda Civic. That’s how, in early 2014, I ended up in Geoff Mesman’s shop. As the memories of Indonesia 1956 came flooding back, my eyes wandered to a second photo on the wall. And I froze. The faded black-and-white print showed a young rider leaning a vintage racing motorcycle—an NSU—into a corner.

“What’s this, Geoff?”

“My father,” he said. “He raced motorcycles in Indonesia in the ’50s.” I couldn’t believe the words coming out of his mouth. “Dad is 77, and he no longer rides, but he owns this shop. He’ll be in next week.”

Fifty-eight years later I had lunch with Harry Mesman, the NSU racer who kickstarted my motorcycling passion. I also set a place at the table for dad, but he didn’t show. Dad passed away in 2002. Still, I’d like to think he was there. After all, who else do you suppose could have arranged that meeting?