Race Track Flashbacks | CODE BREAK

Racing was raw in 1963—some pros didn’t even wear gloves.

It seems hard to believe now when so many club racers have RVs and enclosed trailers, but back when I started racing, even the pros usually carried bikes on open trailers—or inside a van, if they were lucky. I didn’t have any of these, so I traveled to my first race in a 1956 Volkswagen Beetle with all but the driver’s seat removed. My pride and joy, a 1960 Ducati Supersport/Elite 200, minus its front wheel, fit where the passenger seat normally was, with the back wheel resting where the back seat should have been. If I had a passenger, that person sat in the space on the floor behind the driver’s seat. I couldn’t care less—we were going racing. A few hundred miles in cramped quarters was a cakewalk when that was the payoff.

I had a couple good rides locally and one summer decided to go to the nation’s oldest roadrace, the famous Loudon Classic in New Hampshire. The VW was unavailable, so instead I recruited my buddy with a 1952 Plymouth. We had to take all the seats out to get the bike in. That solved the bike transport problem but—oops—what about the driver? We borrowed a wooden lawn chair from my parents’ patio and tied it into the car, cushion and all. Our sleeping bags, piled on the floor, served as passenger accommodations.

We set out on the 700-mile drive from my hometown of Pittsburgh with a tent, assorted camping gear, and just enough money for gas and food. On the road we ate a lot of bologna-and-cheese sandwiches; once we stopped at a farmhouse and bought homemade bread and huge duck eggs that we later cooked outdoors over an open fire.

The track was at a park near a ski area called Gunstock. Campsites were available there, but we couldn’t pay for them, so we pitched our tent deep in the woods instead. Others were doing the same. The race environment was fantastic. Thousands of spectators, mostly camping themselves, and all the top racers too: Joe Leonard, Carroll Resweber, Bart Markel, Jody Nicholas, and more. Everyone was there, everyone was approachable, and everyone was friendly.

Sadly, the weekend was a total bust for me, after my bike blew up in practice. The circuit—if you want to call it that—was really just a scenic park road, lined with lots of trees. For safety, some of the bigger trees had hay bales piled in front of them. But there were many more trees than there were hay bales! The final corner was a hairpin. Right on the outside of that hairpin was a bandstand converted to a timing/scoring/viewing enclosure. It was surrounded with bales that seemed intended to protect the bandstand, not necessarily the riders. Rider safety wasn’t something we thought much about. Racing was raw in 1963—some pros didn’t even wear gloves.

As I played spectator for the remainder of the weekend, I was blown away by what I saw. These guys were running it up into the hairpin and pitching their bikes full sideways, just like the dirt trackers they were. No one worried about brake fade—the brakes didn’t work that well anyway.

Shortly after, I quit racing for almost 10 years; let’s just say I got involved in the ’60s. Fast-forward a decade. It’s 1972, I’m living in California, and the first motorcycle roadrace is slated for Laguna Seca. My sweetheart and I packed up our camping gear and set out to watch Kenny Roberts, Gene Romero, Cal Rayborn, and Gary Nixon do battle. Through chain-link fence we watched these stars and soon-to-be legends sitting in a semicircle on folding chairs—still not one motorhome in the paddock—chatting, laughing, and relaxing. The camaraderie was real and magnetic and had a profound effect on me. I was once again smitten with the urge to race. The dream came back to life—and so did I.