Occasionally, when the weather isn’t prohibitive, I walk to a café about two miles from my house. It’s good exercise—and usually boring as hell. The route I take brings me by a small camper, maybe only 15 feet long and not very tall. I’d imagined it was for sleeping only—no stove or toilet, like some have. On one Saturday, while I was walking by the trailer I saw a man in his forties, and what I assume was his teenaged son, unlatch the back wall of the trailer and set it down, revealing two dirt bikes. As they wheeled the two four-stroke motorcycles out of the trailer and onto the front lawn, a melancholy feeling swept over me. I wanted to abort my health walk and start a conversation with the father figure. I had a thousand questions for him and many tales from my youth I wanted to impart. Even if I’d had the nerve to strike up a conversation with a complete stranger, and he was friendly enough to reciprocate, he would get tired of all my questions and my “When I was into dirt bikes…” stories. Still, the feeling hung with me like a dull ache for many days following the encounter.
First thing the following Monday morning, I emailed someone at work who I knew was a dirt bike enthusiast about some of the changes in the dirt bike world over the last few years. “Ben,” I’ll call him, was happy to fill me in on the details, though, being younger than me, he could not fill me in on all 30 years that I have been away from the sport; in fact, his emails took on a kind of anxious tone when I kept the email correspondence going far beyond his own interest. (Perhaps it was a good idea I kept walking the other day.)
Ben helped me understand why these two dirt bikes I saw, which clearly were racing bikes, replete with number plates, had four-stroke engines—when I followed the sport the four-stroke engine was relegated almost exclusively to the street due to the engine’s weight and poor, low-end performance. California’s green legislation, Ben told me, has hurt the two-stroke motorcycle owners. One can ride a four-stroke dirt bike (also known as a “thumper” because of the low-pitch sound that it makes) year round compared to two-stroke bikes, which can only be ridden when air quality permits; this is determined by the Air Quality Index (AQI). This translates into two-stroke bikers can’t ride on public land during the warm weather months. Also, if for some reason air quality is poor during the cool months, they may not be able to operate their bikes on those days either.
I was a true wannabe dirt biker when I was a kid. For the year or two that he competed, my father was an accomplished novice racer, winning trophies in Enduro, Hare and Hounds (Scrambles), and Hillclimbing competitions. He didn’t like Motocross—what I believe to be the coolest and most exiting motor sport in the world—because “you just go around in circles.” Typically self-effacing, he would come home from a race with a huge trophy, walk directly into the garage, and throw it up in the attic, never to be seen (at least by him) again. I used to go up in that crawl space, set up his trophies—which included awards in auto and boat racing—like a shrine. I couldn’t understand how someone could actually win something like a trophy (and some of them where big, from big events), then just chuck it like an ugly dish won from a coin toss at the State Fair.
In my near 50 years, I have never won a trophy; the closest things I have are the numerous certificates a State employee receives for training. I feel so special when I receive the decoration on multipurpose printer paper and see the blank line where I am supposed to enter my own name, for sleeping through a class on “Professionalism in the Workplace.” Some of my father’s trophies have his name etched on gold plaques.
Though my father was not an expert rider, he occasionally raced with accomplished professional riders like Hall of Fame inductee Dick Mann, who is featured on the 1974 Bruce Brown film On Any Sunday; though my dad admits he couldn’t keep up with the legend. I saw the Brown film with my dad when it first came out and then again just a few weeks ago after all these feelings of longing hit me on that street where I saw those two dirt bikes. I think my dad had hopes that his two sons would ride with him, but when he brought a little 50cc Honda mini bike home that fateful day, we were petrified of the little thing.
Later, when I grew out of my fear of falling and, to some extent, my fear of my father, I asked him for a 125cc Honda Elsinore. By that time, he was no longer interested in dirt bikes; he now ran around in the dirt with a dune buggy. I guess he didn’t want to spend the money on a new bike for me since he sold his last bike, or maybe he thought I was just all talk. He later bought me a 70cc Honda. I don’t recall what happened to that bike. However, I do remember riding that bike and my mom’s old 90cc Hodaka, but he only took me out to an OHV park a couple of times to ride it. I usually went out to the gravel pit (now William B. Pond Park at the East end of Arden Way in Carmichael) and played around there.
Similar to how I watched the Oakland Athletics when I was playing little league, I kept up with the professional racing side of the sport, subscribing to Dirt Bike magazine. I had my favorite riders, just as fans of baseball have their favorite players and teams. Only a Motocross maven like me would call it an honor to be clocked by Brad Lackey’s handlebars when we went to Livermore to see an International Motocross. It didn’t feel like an “honor” at first—more as as if I had just walked into Barry Bonds’ wheelhouse as he was swinging for the Bay. I saw all the leaders go by—Swedes, Fins, Belgians, and Germans, then I leaned over to get a better look and Lackey came in close with his lime-green Kawasaki. The next thing I knew I was grabbing my arm and trying not to faint.
I would have loved to get the future World Champion’s autograph next to the big bruise; alas, it would have faded away much as the bruise did. What paled in comparison to the Lackey bruise was the bruise I received by a line-drive foul ball in a 1972 ALCS game at the Oakland Coliseum. I don’t even remember the batter’s name. Who cares who that Baltimore Oriole player was; I got a black, blue, purple, and sickly yellow bruise by Brad Lackey! I would later get 500cc World Champion Roger DeCoster’s signature on a cool 8×10 glossy of him on his Suzuki when I saw him at Carmichael Honda a few months after the race, but I misplaced it. If I ever find it, I will probably also rediscover the banquet program with the autographs of the future 1972-74 World Series Champions; yes, I had a dynasty on a 1968 fund-raiser program and I misplaced it.
In my correspondence with Ben, he also told me about Monkey Butt!, the book written by Dirt Bike magazine’s first editor, Rick Sieman. (The title comes from a condition, the author states, where a person has been riding dirt bikes for so long that his rear end starts to look like a monkey’s ass.) The next day, Ben came down with his worn copy of Sieman’s book. I didn’t ask to borrow the book and felt somewhat awkward taking it, but after I started reading it, I was transfixed. Monkey Butt! is poorly written, poorly edited (if edited at all) and—for someone like me who experienced this subculture (albeit from the cheap seats) some thirty years ago—a blast of a read, typos and all.
The book is a collection of very short essays that range from the whimsical to the outrageous to the occasionally poignant. Sieman is not an accomplished writer; his style is provincial at best, but what better voice for this subject? A friend once told me I was a fool to read Dirt Bike, he told me Cycle World was a better-written and more serious motorcycle magazine. In retrospect, he was correct, but that wasn’t the point—Cycle World was more like the Establishment: proper, sober, and shiny—like a chrome stock fender. Dirt Bike was the Counterculture: irreverent, funny, and as gritty as a Carlsbad berm.
Sieman captures the excitement of experiencing a brand new pastime much like the Bruce Brown film so beautifully celebrates. However, Sieman’s book goes back to the dusty alleys where street bike enthusiasts would tinker with top-heavy, ill-handling road bikes that were stripped down for racing in the desert. The book chronicles the rise of a different kind of motorcycle club dedicated to dirt and desert racing, documenting the synergy of this movement with the evolution of the two-cycle dirt bike to meet these hungry new enthusiasts’ demand of lighter, faster machines. Just like in surfing—which was gathering momentum at the same time—southern California became the Mecca for the dirt and desert racing subculture. In typical American style, dirt bike racing became an “American sport,” despite Europe’s legitimate claim to the pastime. Monkey Butt! is a remembrance of this discovery.
While the first half of the book focuses on the early, developing years, the second half is mainly about the battle between off-road bikers and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the other “eco-nazis,” as Sieman calls them. This part is where my love for the dirt bike runs smack into my liberal politics. Still, Sieman puts up a strong argument for desert racing, claiming that the ecosystem of the Mojave Desert, just to name one, is always in a state of change:
“One sandstorm in the Mojave can move millions of tons of sand and dirt over hundreds of miles. One flash flood can tear away the base of a mountain. How can this compare with a set of tire tracks over shifting sands? If all the dirt bikes in America got together and rode around in a circle for a month at a spot in the Mojave, one sandstorm could wipe out every evidence of them having been there. Overnight.”
Still, I know there are other arguments that support the abolishment of desert racing, such as the endangerment of the Mojave Desert Tortoise and other wildlife, but that does not stop developers from creating fire roads, mines, and other types of development that do just as much damage. If Sieman is very critical of the BLM, he equally doles out harsh words about the American Motorcycle Association. He believes they have been impotent against these powers and act like a puppet for Japanese motorcycle corporations who do not support the very people who buy, ride, and race motorcycles because they want to avoid making waves in the U.S.
Reading the book only exasperated my longing for a time I never truly experienced first-hand. I was more like a third-string high school football player, permanently pined for the season, watching my teammates win the State Championship. With each story in the book, I recall names and events that I knew of, but because of either my age or my situation, I was always on the outside looking in.
My last bike was a 125cc Yamaha Enduro DT-1, but I never rode it in the dirt—it was my ride to and from high school for a couple of years. When I got my first car, I was already deep into listening to and writing about rock music and movies, and lost interest in the dirt-racing scene. I never returned to the dirt bike world. Bruce Springsteen, The Clash, and Bob Dylan had replaced Joel Roberts, Roger DeCoster, and Dick Mann in my personal pantheon.
The years went by and I only heard bits of news of the dirt biking world: There’s this thing called Supercross, kind of a combination of motocross and, I don’t know, football? Anyway, it takes place in a stadium where you have an assigned seat as though you’re at a football or baseball game. Hell, that’s no fun; you can’t freely walk around the track to the best berm or the starting line or finish line, where you are inches away from your hero and his handlebars. Ironically, Dirt Bike was instrumental in organizing the first Supercross: the Superbowl of Motocross held in the Los Angeles Coliseum in 1974. Then there’s the latest thing that I’ve seen on TV, Freestyle Motocross (or FMX) where riders take dirt bikes and try to do daring, artistic moves way up in the air. It looks more dangerous than Motocross, but it still is kind of lame; the whole thing flies in the face of real Motocross, where you want to get as little air as possible. Also, FMX is not a race, but rather something contestants are judged on—like figure skating. Anyway, I guess this old fart is out of it.
On another Saturday walk, I find myself spying on the dirt bike family getting ready for the races. I have my mobile phone to my ear, as though I’m talking to someone, and I stare through my dark shades at the father and son checking out their bikes. The trailer door is down and is now a ramp. (Oh, the trailer is more spacious than I thought, and the amenities!) The father starts one of the bikes. It has an electric starter. Hmm, that seems kind of sissy compared to the old kick-starting method in my day. They look over at me standing in the middle of the street, “talking” to someone on my mobile phone, and then father says something to his son that I can’t hear over the thumper’s pulse. Perhaps they are wondering if I am some kind of wannabe. They don’t know half the story.
This is a great post. Damn, you and I are a lot alike. Drifting from one obsession to another like a dungeonmaster on a unicycle.