Owning a Few of the Runner-Ups

WORDS: Bill Park – Myrtle Beach, SC and Vernon, CT

SUBMITTED: July 21st, 2012

The guy beside me on my flight from BDL, Hartford Springfield to ATL, Atlanta Hartsfield International, must have thought I was some emotional wreck. Lucky for me, the wife picked up the mail before we departed from Hartford at the end of a long work week, heading for our home in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Five weeks away from home and hearth is way too long. Too much time spent at 35,000 feet, breathing recycled air, and sipping adult beverages.

I think I must have read the September issue of Motorcyclist about three times from cover to cover, during that one hour and fifty minute flight to Atlanta. What an emotional roller coaster ride. This whole 100th anniversary has been an exciting stroll down memory lane. But this September issue is your supreme. Like a steamroller, the words and images came crashing over me. Like that cool breeze you feel in the first hundred yards taking off on your bike on a very hot day, and your sweet evaporates away like a flock of those migratory birds taking off from some lake in a forgotten corner of the African landscape. I went from laughing out loud to having crocodile tears welling up in my eyes. My body heaving to control the emotions rushing through like some giant tidal wave.

When we arrived at the airport, I immediately had to flip through the pages and share with my wife of 34 years, plus another five of courting, what I had just been through. I was ready to explode. Can’t say that too loudly in an airport these days.

Of the ten runner-ups for Motorcycle of the Century, I had owned three. Might not sound like much, and with that the wife gave a big yawn and her eyes started to glaze over. But to me, being just a grain of sand in the hourglass of time, it was a revelation, an epiphany of sorts. A hundred years is not much when measured in the universe's time continuum, but for us mortals who are here but for a blink of an eye, it is a very, very, very long time indeed. And so much has gone on in the century since Motorcyclist began it's illustrious career.

First, I must admit to never having owned the fabled Honda 750 Four. But I have ridden a few, including the two-speed automatic they made for a year or so way back in the 70s. I had stopped in to buy some parts at the Honda dealership in Columbus, MS when the owner and GM came almost running up to me and said, you have to take this new bike for a ride. Sure to his word, it had two speeds and no clutch. But with all the torque this bike made, you could have made it a single speed and just taken off in high.

Memories like that will almost bring this old biker to tears. So many rides, but so much of it in the past. You can’t go back. You can only relive it in your mind. We didn't have digital cameras built into our smart phones back then. We had only our brain cells as memory chips, and too many of them have been wiped clean over these many years.

First to jump off the page, was the 1973 Honda CR250 Elsinore. I bought mine, used, less than a year old from the same Honda dealer in Columbus, MS. Someone had locked up the engine of their new bike and hadn't paid their bill, or made their payments. I got it for a song, and I can't sing very well at all. I got home and found that the gland nut holding the magneto onto the crank, had backed off, jammed into the inside of the case, causing the woodruff key to shear, upsetting the cart so to speak. A ten-cent woodruff key and ten minutes later, I was racing down the back roads on my nearly new Elsinore.

Like a dummy, I replaced the marvelous polished aluminum tank with some cheesy plastic thing and slowly transformed the bike into my ultimate warrior for motocross and following the power lines. Some great memories are still vivid in my mind, from all those miles I laid out on that wonderful and trouble free (from that day on) bike.

I sold the Elsinore, soon after the wife and I moved to Portland, OR, to take on my first real job after finishing college, metallurgical engineering, at the University of Alabama. With the new job and few places to ride dirt bikes in the environmentally wacko state of Oregon, I reluctantly sold her to a 14-year-old kid, who lived down the street from us, and took the money and bought the wife a deep freezer from Sears. The freezer lasted 22 years and served us well, but I still ache all over whenever I think about the Elsinore. You can never go back and be 21 years old.

Even before the Elsinore, there was the Yamaha RD350. My second bike on the Century list. I know, the list calls out the 79 RD400F Daytona Special, but the truth be known, it was the RD350 that started the sport bike era. It was a giant killer indeed. My brother, John and I bought the bike together, for around $630. And Willie Smith, Smith Sports Cycles of Tuscaloosa, AL, (the longest still in business Yamaha dealer east of the Mississippi) threw in two open face helmets. The Bell full-face helmet was still a rare, unattainable item for us newbies. I kept my helmet until the foam lining turned to dust, like Dracula when hit by bright sunlight. I beat many bikes and cars in the quarter mile on that agile beast, zipping around our stomping grounds in West Central Alabama.

Two of the snap shots of that RD 350 that still linger in my minds eye was when the time I taught my girl friend (who later became my wife) how to ride. She can say she learned from the best, on the best. She never took to riding like myself, but she learned and could hold her own. She just made her one big mistake marrying an official motorcycle nut. And then there was the time I had my brother on the back, riding home from school. I just had to show off for a busload of kids my new found skill for riding on one wheel. Drop into second gear and you could walk the RD for a magic mile and a great big smile. But that day, I was not counting gears and I dropped all the way to first. The bike stood up pointing to the sky like a steeple on church. For a few frantic seconds I thought my riding career was coming to an early demise.  But, as luck and with my guardian angel looking after me, I returned the front wheel to earth. The kids cheered and waved, as they couldn't see the sweat running down my red face. I think that was my last wheelie done on the street. A very good lesson learned.

[Then last on my Century list, but not the least, is the amazingly beautiful Ducati 916. I actually owned a 2000 996, but needless to say, like the family of the Yamaha RD350, the Ducati 916 family was a game changer like few others. The motorcycle industry would never be the same, and neither would I. The 916 was a purpose built race bike for the street that changed the look and performance of sport and race bikes forever. The shark nosed bike is still, in my humble opinion, the most beautiful motorcycle ever produced… period.  I had my 996 from 04 till just a year ago when I sold it to a close riding friend. I had almost 50,000 miles on the bike. That's a lot of miles for a sport bike that is impossible to ride in traffic, and begs to be on those twisty mountain roads, or better still, the racetrack.

I have fond memories of laughing out loud in my helmet with only me to hear myself, rocking back and forth on some twisting mountain road in North Carolina. Men may have built those mountain passes, but God alone ordained that they would be placed there for just such a moment in my life. It must have been a mountain pass that caused the poet to scribe, God's in his Heaven, all is right with the world.

In a world of so much uncertainty, my motorcycles have been a safe harbor for my soul.  Thanks for publishing Motorcyclist and congratulations on making your first Century with many more to come.