Two-Stroke Terror at the Indy Flat-Track

Falling flat on my back at the Indy Flat-Track

My pep talk from Team Roberts mechanic Joe Fenech left me less than enthused: "If anything goes wrong out there, pray you don't survive the crash." I couldn't tell if he was joking. A&A; Racing's Ray Abrams said essentially the same thing, in even fewer words: "Don't f*ck that bike up!" That was the message I received from everyone attached to Kenny Roberts' legendary 1975 Yamaha TZ750 flat-tracker when I rode the diabolical machine a few hours after King Kenny's historic reunion ride at the Indiana State Fairgrounds last August. I've ridden my share of out-rageously expensive motorcycles-even some that were irreplaceable-and I've never seen handlers worry so much.

Perhaps they knew I had no business riding this particular motorcycle. The closest I'd ever been to this bike, before this moment, was seeing it in the Peter Starr documentary Take it to the Limit. They didn't ask-and I surely didn't tell-but this was my first time ever on a dirt-track! I hadn't so much as lapped a backyard oval on a Honda XR100 before, and I was about to make my debut on what was almost universally regarded as the most unrideable racebike ever built.

Or perhaps they just saw the fear in my eyes. This was a four-cylinder two-stroke with a light-switch powerband, a 150-mph top speed and no front brake. The bike that famously inspired King Kenny, one of the most fearless racers ever, to quip, "They don't pay me enough to ride that thing." A bike that was banned from competition after just three races because officials were afraid it would kill someone. My head was filled with visions of me high-siding head-first into the Turn 1 wall, or looping the bike on the front straight. This couldn't turn out well...

Saddling up before a few hundred spectators did nothing to calm my nerves-especially since I followed former AMA dirt-track, Superbike and Supersport National Champion Ben Bostrom. The only other "journalist" allowed to ride the bike, he was a ringer sent by Cycle News. There was no pre-ride briefing at all: Just sit down, bump-start and go. I didn't know if the bike had standard or race-pattern shifting, or even how many gears there were! Thank goodness I didn't have to remember which direction the track went, too.

We were allowed just two laps, and it took until the second time around before I figured out the controls and surface enough to at least somewhat pay attention to the screaming machine underneath me. Of course, it wasn't half as terrifying as I anticipated-how could it be? Granted, I wasn't sideways in the cushion spraying a 100-mph roost, but at my don't-f*ck-it-up pace the TZ750 felt like a perfectly tuned racebike. Throttle response was crisp (if a little rich), the suspension was surprisingly compliant and the bike even hooked up on the groove, thanks to better rubber than the stuff Roberts rode on back in the day. Even when I cracked the throttle along the back straight it didn't snap, stand up or do anything else untoward. It just lit up and stepped out as smoothly as any traction-controlled Superbike. No doubt it's a different animal on its side and on the pipe, but I sure as hell wasn't going to find out!

I was beyond relieved to return the bike to Fenech and Abrams intact-if not a little humiliated, especially after Bostrom's shrieking laps. "Were you even riding that thing?" my never-gracious buddy Ronnie Z asked as I pulled off my helmet. "I could hardly hear anything when you were out there." My publisher later said he overheard someone in the crowd say, "Man, you could have timed that guy with a calendar."

I was just happy to bring this priceless relic back in one piece, and to stay upright for my brief time on one of racing's most glorious bikes. But I wasn't off the hook just yet. Walking across the paddock to return the steel shoe I'd borrowed from AMA Grand National contender J.R. Schnabel, I fell flat on my back after stepping steel shoe-first onto a wet wooden pallet bridging a ditch. Ben's brother Eric Bostrom was right beside me: "Dude, that was a full-on Charlie Brown! Your feet were all the way over your head!"

At least I saved my crash until after I was finished riding King Kenny's bike.

Two-Stroke Terror

If riding Roberts' TZ didn't take the author's breath away, slipping and falling flat on his back in the muddy paddock knocked the wind right out of him!
If looks could kill! Team Roberts mechanic Joe Fenech (right) and Yamaha Media Relations Manager Kevin Foley (second from right) give the author the old stink-eye before he wobbles away on King Kenny's ride.
Fortunately, the King himself was on hand to show folks how it's really done. He hadn't even seen the bike in 10 years, but that hardly slowed him down.
MotoGP superstar Valentino Rossi declined a ride on the terrible TZ. Here he tells Roberts how the shrieking exhaust almost stopped his heart.