Take it to the Limit

Thirty years later, the producer remembers the film that captured racing history

In 1980, the motorcycle racing world was casting its gaze on Daytona. The best competitors from four continents came to ride the most sophisticated machinery the era had to offer. Within those ranks were the legends: Roberts, Baker, Sheene, Hailwood, DeCoster, Collins, Penhall-all of whom were the vital forces of racing, the best of the "good old days," now largely the silver wraiths whose accomplishments still haunt the sport. That was 30 years ago, multiple lifetimes in racing, and a single lifetime ago for a movie about the sport, Take it to the Limit, and for its filmmaker: me.

Well-reviewed by both the conventional newspapers and the motorcycle press, and winner of top honors at the Chicago and Houston International Film Festivals, Take it to the Limit never received widespread distribution, largely because of the old Hollywood story: Producer makes film, distributor shows film, film makes lots of money, distributor runs away with money, film is buried in legal hassles, producer never sees money and film languishes in near-oblivion. Much of the story is covered in detail in my book, Taking it to the Limit: 20 Years of Making Motorcycle Movies.

The promises of youth, in filmmaking as well as motorcycle racing, so often go unfulfilled. In this film however, we captured some of the most amazing moments of motorcycle racing history. When we were shooting, we were just out to make the best motorcycle film we could, standing in the right spot, pointing the cameras, rolling the film and hoping that our chosen riders hit pay dirt that day. We weren't disappointed. Roberts, Baker, Hailwood, et al performed some of the most memorable feats that weekend. If luck in motorcycle racing is 90 percent preparation, the percentages in filmmaking are no different.

From the opening scenes of David Emde riding a Yamaha XS11 at terrifying speeds along a closed road north of Ojai, there can be little doubt as to what this film is about. The title is more than appropriate. We were at the Indy Mile to film Rex Beauchamp, Corky Keener and Gary Scott when Kenny Roberts stunned us, and his competition, with one of the most exciting rides in dirt-track history. It was a magic moment, and we were lucky to capture it. That moment has become so iconic that Yamaha recently used that segment of the film in its video testimonial to that piece of history. The yowl of that four-cylinder two-stroke piercing the normal thunder of the Harley-Davidson V-twins commands a part of my memory equal to the sound of Bob McIntyre fighting it out with John Surtees, both on four-cylinder roadracers, on the 170-mph drop from Kate's Cottage to Creg-ny-Baa in the Isle of Man in '57. Once heard, never forgotten. When Kenny Roberts returned to Indy last year to ride that TZ750 again, the fans were screaming to re-live that moment with him.

And who could have forecast Steve Baker flying to England in '76 for the prestigious Race of the Year, pitted against some of the greatest world-class roadracers, including Sheene, Read, Agostini and Grant, and so dominating the event that we had to edit the film judiciously to make it seem exciting! I had known both Baker and Sheene for some time, and it brought me great pleasure to bring them together for this film sequence. Steve is still with us and as modest and unassuming as ever, considering he was America's first roadracing world champion. He was one of the few riders that gave Roberts fits when they raced against each other. Sheene, on the other hand, passed away from cancer in 2003. I last saw him only a few months prior when he won a vintage race at Donington Park riding a Manx Norton with the same skill and style that made him a two-time world champion.

Thirty years is a generation in normal human terms, but it's more like three generations for professional racers. Few Pro careers span more than 10 years. The return of Mike Hailwood to the Isle of Man in September '77, exactly 10 years after he had last competed there and 19 years since his first race around the mountain circuit, was the stuff of legend. What we captured there for this film, with special thanks to Rod Gould, himself a world champion in '70, was truly remarkable, not to mention fortuitous. It laid the foundation for Hailwood's racing return and subsequent victory in '78. Even today, considering the technical handicaps we faced, the footage with Hailwood still sends shivers down the spine of audiences when it is viewed on the big screen.

With the exception of Sheene and Hailwood, all of the racers I've named are still with us. One relatively unknown racer who contributed a lot to the opening and to the Roberts-at-Riverside sequence is David Emde. An accomplished roadracer in his own right, and son and brother of Daytona 200 winners, Emde stepped in to ride our Yamaha OW31 camera bike following Skip Aksland's unfortunate Turn 9 get-off. I am still captivated by the memory of chasing and leading Emde, both of us on Yamaha XS11s, at 130 mph-plus along a two-lane road north of Ojai. The road was, of course, blocked off by a very understanding California Highway Patrol. Given today's legal environment, that could never happen. I was saddened greatly when Emde succumbed to injuries suffered in a sportbike crash in '03.

After the Hailwood sequence, the section of Limit that seems to be recalled most often is Russ Collins at the drag strip. This pioneer of two-wheeled rocketships pointed his 600-horsepower, twin-engined "Sorcerer" down the now-long-defunct Orange County International Raceway and came within the proverbial cat's whisker of a 200-mph terminal speed carrying two of our highly specialized cameras. And that was in '78! Somewhat ironically, the young men in the film pushing Collins and his motorcycle back to the starting line from his burnouts were themselves to become icons of the sport: Terry Vance and Byron Hines. Yes, drag racers are quicker today, but none seem to have captured our imagination as Collins did, both with his engineering skill and his bravado.

One of my most gratifying achievements was securing the participation of some major music talent for what became a platinum soundtrack. At the time there had never been a documentary with a hit soundtrack, let alone one produced using the then-new Dolby stereo technology. Most music stars had not yet put a value on a film using their music. Those that worked with us were most generous with their music and their time. Foreigner provided three of their most popular hits after the group, two of whom were motorcycle enthusiasts, learned about the content of the film. Jean Luc Ponty came to see a rough cut of the movie, then agreed to let us use three of his hits, Tangerine Dream had no idea that their record company licensed us their wonderful instrumental piece "Stratosphere," and John McEuen, formerly the banjo player of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, whom I had known since my rock-and-roll days in Canada in '67, was only too pleased to help with his very unique approach to acoustic music.

The only musician who actually appeared in the film was folk balladeer Arlo Guthrie. He actually rode his motorcycle around the beautiful country lanes of his home in the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts, even though it was still winter and quite cold when we filmed this sequence. Guthrie recorded a very special version of his "Motorcycle Song" for which we created an equally unique "clay-mation" piece that originally paved the way for the film, much like cartoons used to precede movies. Unfortunately, in our marketing screenings that came before the release of the movie, no one understood why it was there. So the cartoon got shortened and relegated to the back of the film, and became part of the credits. I still think it was a great idea, brilliantly executed by animation expert Jon Wokuluk, and I will include the complete 5-minute version on the eventual anniversary release of the DVD.

My memories of that shoot and those days are many and colorful, and I have always been grateful for what my film crew achieved. To have made a feature film and had it shown across the country in theaters, let alone win major film festivals, is an accomplishment the likes of which are hard to communicate. To have brought this film to life with some of the icons of that era is perhaps the most rewarding achievement of my career.

I was asked recently what were my feelings about the movie's success, or as some would see it, lack of such. That's as tough a question as I have ever faced. Making the movie, and breaking new barriers to bring it to the big screen, still brings me that warm inner feeling of a job well done. Accepting the awards when the film was honored at the Houston (silver) and Chicago (gold) International Film Festivals gave me a sense that my filmmaking career had truly arrived, and that Hollywood would be beating a path to my door. That never happened, in large part because of the ungodly legal mess left when the distribution company, in whom I had placed an inordinate amount of trust, dropped the ball and stole the money. This is sadly not unique. Hollywood is rife with stories of independent films and their makers being chewed up and spat out by "the system."

Thirty years on, I am looking at showing the movie in cinemas one more time, this time as a fundraiser for prostate cancer. After that, it will get a very special digital treatment before a DVD release. I have gone back and interviewed many who appeared in the film to add a retrospective look at those stars who were the backbone and attitude of Take it to the Limit.

It has certainly been a very strange and complicated road, both during production of the film and since. It does give me a sense of pride, however guarded, to know that there have only been two films of this genre that have enjoyed wide cinema distribution, and that Take it to the Limit was one of them. Given what I have learned, would I like to make a sequel? You betcha!

Take It To The Limit
"Mr. Mile," Harley-Davidson-mounted Rex Beauchamp, at the 1975 Indy Mile. No other racer mattered that day after Kenny Roberts stunned the world on his Yamaha TZ750-and Starr was there to capture it on film.
Roger DeCoster, a five-time world champion by the time the film was released in 1980, was filmed during Trans-Am events in the USA during the '70s.
Mike Hailwood pauses at the Isle of Man while director Peter Starr changes the film in his on-board camera. Local residents of Ballacraine look on.
One of the most visually arresting scenes in the movie is Russ Collins making a near-200-mph quarter-mile pass on "The Sorcerer," his 600-horse-power, twin-engined dragbike. Here he releases his rear tire's magic smoke.
Mike Hailwood hustles his TZ750 through Union Mills at the Isle of Man TT. Note the bulky film camera poking through the windscreen-a stone-age tool compared to today's miniscule digital units.
Starr worked in the music industry before making movies, and the soundtrack was an important part of his work. Here Arlo Guthrie re-records his iconic "Motorcycle Song" for the movie.
Kenny Roberts was fitted with a special microphone to record his thoughts as he cut hot laps at Riverside Raceway. This first-person perspective gives the film a unique and unprecedented immediacy.