Roadracing Back In The Day - Perspectives

Gear Gone By

When I began writing About Motorcycles in 1961, only one of the available helmets (Bell's) provided protection appreciably better than the pasteboard box in which it was shipped. Floyd Clymer's affinity for cheap stuff made the helmet bearing his name the worst of this pre-1960 lot. It had a soft, thin spun-aluminum shell, ultrasoft plastic foam liner and offered no impact protection whatsoever.

The classic British "porridge-pot" helmet was actually better than it appears to 21st-century eyes. The shell was abbreviated, coming down only to the tops of the wearer's ears, but the higher quality helmets had admirably rigid shells and the cork used as an energy-absorbing liner did a decent job of reducing impact peaks. AGV, in Italy, tested many materials for suitability as helmet liners and found that cork was clearly the best available. Expanded polystyrene beads would shortly revolutionize helmet design, but they were not available to AGV.

We had the styrene beads, but did little with them until the irascible Dr. Snively tested the helmets Americans were wearing. All but one, the odd-looking Toptex, were substantially useless. The Toptex's crushable styrene liner sacrificed itself to the impact, thus protecting the brain.

Bell's Roy Richter wasted no time in denial. He bought Toptex so he could use its patented crushable liner in his helmets, leaving Bell's competitors floundering behind, doomed to extinction. Shoei did the smart thing and licensed Toptex's technology from Bell. Others stubbornly clung to the view that foam rubber gave better protection than that new fangled crushable plastic foam.

Boots also were no prize in those long-departed days. Track racers wore either construction-worker boots or linesman's high tops. (That would be the guys who climbed telephone poles, not the football players.) I wore linesman's boots for my off-road forays because they laced up nearly to the knee and I could count on them to keep sand out of my socks. Sadly, unlike today's armor-plated off-road footwear, hard contact with a mere sapling in my old linesman boots would leave me qualified for the Order of the Terminally Barked Shin with Oak Leaf Clusters. Those boots were meant to protect the insides of a linesman's legs from the splinters raised by climbing irons, and were too lightly constructed for the violence motorcycles visited.

I was one of the riders who suffered through the period in which tire traction improved without Japan's test riders and engineers taking adequate notice. Or, maybe they were testing using the Yokohama "racing" tire, which in the USA was standard equipment on Japanese production racing motorcycles (e.g. Yamaha TD-1B). These tires were known as "rim protectors" in acknowledgement of the fact that they were replaced by Dunlop or Goodyear racing tires before the bike did its first lap on a track.

The engineers' misunderstanding about racing-tire traction and cornering lean angles meant that a rider-especially one with big feet-had to place the ball of his downside foot on the footpeg. Even then, big-foot guys like me always got enough pavement contact to wear bevels in our boots, eventually wearing through the soles and into the uppers.

Don Vesco and I were in a kicking-and-gouging battle at Willow Springs, making maximum efforts to win a race of absolutely no importance. On the last lap, I missed a shift while in the lead and Vesco was past me in a blink. In the excitement, I tried to re-pass in a curve but got my left foot trapped between bike and pavement, achieving hard contact and doing to my little toe what I had been doing to my boot.

I should mention here that my boots, genuine British roadracing gear purchased from D. Lewis in London, had been repaired using so-called racer tape-sold as duct tape by its makers, who made the stuff to seal air-conditioning ducts. We used it to seal holes in our boots and leathers, and Kenny Roberts used layers of racer tape to pad the knees of his leathers to suit the knee-down riding style he adopted.

I think the thing I least liked about roadracing was the mashed fingers I seemed to get every time I fell off. I think I was always last to get the word that I had crashed again. So, I'd still be gripping the handlebar when its end slammed down, bringing the end of a brake or clutch lever hard against the pavement and snatching it back to pinch my fingers. I see handlebar clamps for sale now that would let me fit longer, no-pinch handlebars. I sure wish those had been available back when I was racing.

I invite comments, suggestions and even criticisms. My e-mail address is gj@wheelbase. com; call me at (805) 239-2192, 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. PST, or fax (805) 239-0855.