AMA Vintage Days
The 25th annual running of the AMA Vintage Days took place last weekend, July 7th - 9th. Thousands of people pour through the gates of the Mid-Ohio Car racing course just outside of Lexington, Ohio, with all proceeds supporting the AMA’s Hall of Fame. Of course you expect to see vintage bike shows and racing, but there’s plenty of other stuff around too: a wall of death, seminars on topics ranging from the ISDE to the history of the internal combustion engine, a beer garden with live entertainment, book signings, a free garage for riders to wrench on their machines, living legends like Guy Cooper, John Penton and Jeff Fredette strolling through the pits, and what may well be the largest motorcycle swap meet in the United States. The only thing here that’s cooler than seeing these pieces of history come alive before your eyes is hearing the stories from all the people who come together to celebrate this history. I wandered the pits, listening to anyone who was willing to talk. Here are some of their stories:
When a man rode up to the Vintage Hare Scrambles starting line on a beautifully restored 1972 Triumph, we assumed he was dropping someone off….. until we saw the paper numbers carefully placed on the chrome. When I asked him if he planned to actually race that beautiful street bike in the woods, he removed his earplugs and corrected me with a smile – “It’s a scrambler.” It also happens to be what he drives to work every morning. I asked if he was worried about damaging it. He replied: No, I’m not afraid I’m going to tear it up. I was actually second in my class last year on this thing!”
With a pop, the ’74 Yamaha 250cc comes to an abrupt halt at the top of an embankment. No manner of kicking would revive it, and the rider pushed it off to the side and started to work on it. The barrage of rain prior to the Vintage Hare Scrambles took its toll on a number of these older machines. The rider shook his head, and dejectedly told me he’d already tried changing the spark plug to no avail – “if you run vintage you have to be prepared”. Though disappointed, he still spoke highly of the event: “This is my 3rd time here at Vintage days. It’s very well organized and I’ve always been really happy with it.”
You ever heard of a Rupp? Neither had I. So when I saw it, I stopped and asked the owner to tell me about it. “Rupp was a manufacturer of snowmobiles here in Ohio, and they got into the motorcycle business because sales of snowmobiles would fall off during the summer. This is a ’75 model; I believe the company only survived until ’78. It was never a large manufacturer; they always had low production numbers. I found this model in a Kentucky barn and bought it for $600. As best as I can tell it’s all original.”. So why did he buy it and fix it up, besides a love of vintage bikes? “The Rupp and the Chaparral next to it are actually wedding presents for a good friend – he gets one and his wife will get the other. Both of them will be thrilled!”
Back in 1977, Can-Am released the MX3 250cc. This model year was much faster, with more suspension travel too. However, Can-Am didn’t update the chassis, which created a bike so sketchy that factory rider Jimmy Ellis referred to it as a “widow-maker.” One of the marketing guys loved it, and called the model the “Black Widow” So the first ones dealers received were black and red, with a spider decal on its fender – at least until the dealers complained that they couldn’t sell bikes advertised as killing the rider. This story was told to me by a man who found one almost by accident. “When my brother and I checked the serial number, I was like ‘oh my God, this is a rare bike, and the owner is completely oblivious’. I wanted to give it a proper restoration, so I bought the Hodoka I’d originally came for, and he threw in the Can-Am for an extra dollar.” The bike is now worth $7500, but the owner won’t ever sell it, due to sentimental value. His brother was diagnosed with the final stages of cancer when the bike was in the final stages of rebuild. They finished it on Thanksgiving day, and it was the last motorcycle the brother ever rode.
Monkey in the Middle:
In addition to the hare scrambles, motocross and trials, AMA Vintage days includes dirt track and road racing – which also includes a division for sidecar racing. I asked one racer and their “monkey” (sidecar passenger) of four years how they got started and what sidecar racing is like.
The driver: “I rode motocross as a little kid, then moved to dirt track and speedway. I started racing sidecars in 2006. I bought a used rig and just worked my way up from there. I’ve been to most of the tracks in America, and now build my own rigs as well. Just trying to have fun without getting hurt.”
The Monkey: “I came to vintage days a few years ago, saw the sidecar racing and absolutely fell in love with the idea. I started racing solo bikes so that I could learn how to race, and actually won a couple of vintage championships. I met my driver because I was looking into buying one of his rigs, and he convinced me to ride monkey for him instead. One thing a lot of people don’t realize is that riding monkey is actually very physical – you’re never just sitting there. You have to constantly be moving around and shifting your weight to keep the bike from tipping.”
Wall of Death:
Adding to the carnival atmosphere was a vintage exhibit right out of a sideshow display – the wall of death. Its roots are from the board track racing of the early 1900s, and over time the wall of death or motordromes, became popular entertainment at fairs and carnivals across the country. Though less common now than they were in the 30’s, you still see them from time to time. The crew performing at Vintage Days rode Indians with left hand throttles and autopilot systems so the throttle stayed on during no-handed stunts. The owner, who started riding the dome in 1969 and has been at it ever since owns, operates and rides in his shows, along with three others, two men, one woman. They tour nine years out of the year, and spend the remaining three working on their equipment. I was impressed by the amount of work that goes into setting up the show – pieces of the wooden bowl and stands can weigh up to 400 pounds. Because of the grueling setup, they never practice. All their training and new stunts take place in front of a live crowd every time, which adds to the excitement of the show. They say it can take months to learn to ride the dome proficiently, most of which is spent acclimating to the vertigo, dizziness and g-forces involved.
Just outside the swap meet, there was a man loading a Penton with a tank signed by the man himself, and a vanity plate reading 6 DAZ. When I asked about the plate, he introduced himself as Bud Green, and told me in his soft-spoken voice that he had actually rode on a team with John Penton in the 1969 ISDE. Though this was not the exact same bike, he had competed on the same model. This one he bought and restored to keep as memorabilia. He told me Germany was the hardest race he had ever done – among the usual challenges of the ISDE, he damaged his frame and rear wheel assembly (non-replaceable parts during the event), and punched a hole in his case (that he plugged with bubble gum!) and kept riding. Despite this, Bud finished with a bronze medal that year, which he still hangs up on his mantel.
These three kids all compete in National Moto Trails events, in addition to riding here at the Vintage Days. Two of the boys are twin brothers and the third is a close friend of theirs. Both of the fathers compete, and they ride around in a caravan, with one dad in front, the kids sandwiched in the middle, and one dad bringing up the rear. And why do they enjoy riding trials? I got a different answer from each: “I’ve been doing it as long as I can remember”, “It’s just fun” and “because we get medals”
The Coolest Bikes I saw:
Though almost everything was interesting, there were two that really caught my eye. One was a specially modified Kawasaki street bike, built by a man in Britain. He took two matching 3 cylinder engines, and connected them to a single cylinder, to make a seven cylinder bike. The engine block was obviously much wider than usual, and the seven pipes out the back were artfully placed. It was a strange (especially as the single cylinder looked like a “dummy”, unconnected to the carburetor), but beautiful machine.
The other really unique machines I saw were the two old-school Indians, 1934 and 1935 Bonniville Sport Scouts. I never knew this, but some old bikes, including these, actually used a hand-shifting mechanism, similar to a stick shift in a car, with the clutch on the left pedal instead of a shifter. This means that while competing in his pre-war vintage road race class, the owner actually had to remove one hand from the bars to shift when entering and exiting the corners – very sketchy! The old man talked to us for well over an hour, describing the history of his machines and his thoughts on modern racing. He stresses that motorcycle racing seems to have become self-centered, though it should be about community. He said that “even when you’re competing with each other, you should respect all of your fellow riders, bond with some of them, and above all do what you can to preserve the sport.”
Why Does Vintage Matter? :
At the end of the day, this all comes down to thousands of enthusiasts all coming together to celebrate motorcycle racing and its history. When the winner of the last race of the weekend, 20 year-old Jared Hall, pulled off the track on his 1985 Husky 125cc, I flagged him down and asked why he races vintage. Why all of this old stuff matters when there’s a world of newer racing out there. He replied “Riding vintage is just fun. It’s like being able to go back in time, and you can really see how far bikes have come, and what the riders before us had to deal with.”