Michael Lawless

The Spectacle of Speedway

What's it like to ride a speedway bike?
I'm told they go faster when you shut the throttle.
That they do zero to sixty in three seconds
With no brakes or rear suspension.
The alcohol-burning 500 cc singles crank out 70ish horsepower.
Yet weigh in at 175 pounds.
They are explosive machines, vicious and unforgiving.
Their battle is a series of heats,
Just four intense laps of mano a mano racing.
Welcome to the world of Speedway.
Johnathan Oakden is an up-and-comer in the Speedway scene, and keeps his body in shape with MMA training. [Steve Koletar]
Who dares to race such machines?
The first speedway racer I met was 18-year-old Jonathan Oakden.
The likable young man's life plan is a move to California.
There he will take his shot at becoming a professional speedway racer. 
If that doesn't work out he is training to be an MMA fighter.
I felt like I was talking to Lloyd Dobler.
Johnny spoke of his love for combat sports.
How he grew up racing motocross, then made the switch to speedway.
Johnny studied martial arts and wrestling in school.
I applaud his decision to chase his dreams.
Plenty of time later to work in cubicles if they don't pan out.
Jake Meyer looking more pro wrestler than motorcycle racer, but that's Speedway... [Stever Koletar]
The second rider I spoke with was Jake Myer.
He looked more weightlifter than motorcycle racer.
He could easily bench press a speedway bike.
How did he get involved?
As a boy, his parents took him to the local speedway races,
and he was taken with the spectacle.
Jake hadn't been to a race in years but spotted an ad for a local race.
He had such a good time he took his wife to a second event.
She asked - why don't you race?
With her blessing, he started competing.
I'm not sure what her motives were.
Max Ruml is the master of the one-handed wheelie on his speedway bike. [Steve Koletar]
One racer stood out among this motley crew.
Max Ruml has an air of professionalism mixed with that west coast vibe.
This showman is ruthlessly fast while pulling off one-handed wheelies.
He recently clinched the 2021 AMA National Championship.
Max hopes to race in Europe next.
Gino Manzanez (another MMA fighter!) broadsliding at extreme angles, which is part of the Spectacle of Speedway. [Steve Koletar]
Our photographer Steve Koletar is a well-traveled race enthusiast.
He covers both automobile and motorcycle racing.
I asked Koletar what's the best show in racing?
Steve said "Speedway is out of this world.
It's a must-see spectacle."
I confessed I'd never been.
He wouldn't take no for an answer,
so we attend the next AMA National together.
The racing is intense.
You can see all the action on these small tracks.
I noted the enthusiastic crowd seemed very 420 friendly.
Speedway is a box that should be checked off by any true racing enthusiast.
Jason Bonsignore and Len McBride with the trophy Len created celebrating Jason's 25 year ownership of Champion Speedway. [Steve Koletar]
Note:  We would like to thank Jason Bonsignore.
Jason manages both Champion and Action Park East in New York.
His love for speedway keeps the sport alive on the East Coast.
Speedway has a huge following in Europe but is mainly based in California here in the USA.
This was the first time the AMA Nationals were held outside of California.
Hopefully, it will be an annual part of the schedule.
The racing is very sideways in Speedway, as full broadsliding is the technique for racing.  And wheelies.  [Steve Koletar]
The broadsliding technique used in Speedway was invented in the 1920s, some say by American rider Sprouts Elder, who improved on the original 'leg trailing' technique, in which a rider dragged his foot behind the machine. The sport of Speedway was originally called Dirt Track, and was the most popular motorsport in the world - period- in the mid-1920s. Riders traveled the world on an international, professional circuit following the seasons: the USA, Britain, South America, and Australia.We have plenty of archival stories of Dirt Track racing in its original days: have a look at a few here:

 

Michael Lawless [@electric_horseman], our 'Poet of Packed Earth', is the Flat Track Editor for TheVintagent.com, and has his own blog: Electric Horseman

EZ Does It

Doing it the hard way is painful:

Life over the limit beat me down,

And I grew gun shy from injury.

Tired of explaining the damage from my latest get-off,

and those hours of reflection in the ER.

Should I just write?

Writer and flat track racer Michael Lawless aboard one of his racers, from his story 'Passing, Pain, and Purpose.' [Michael Lawless]
Not racing is hard too.

Part of me dies at the track when I’m not suiting up,

and the dream floods back watching American Flat Track on TV.

The contradiction was killing me.

Lucky, I ran across Kenny Dahlin.

He runs a flat track racing school called 'EZ Does It',

named for his approach to racing.

We crossed paths on social media,

thumbs up & positive comments.

On the track Kenny looks effortless and in control.

Exactly what I wasn't.

I knew I could learn a few things.

So, I decided to invest in my riding skills.

Kenny Dahlin keeping a close eye on a student. [Kris Keath]

Kenny teaches on the track.

He sent me out first, then joined me:

We rip off a bunch of laps elbow to elbow.

He dropped back to tail me, then cleared off to see what I'd do.

His feedback made me realize

a lifetime of sport riding had made me lazy.

On the road, to corner quicker I'd enter fast and lean harder.

This doesn’t work on the dirt.

Charging into a corner,

I’d lose front grip then pick her up to regain traction.

By then I'm running wide, struggling to change direction,

and grabbing throttle to make up for mistakes.

Out of shape and into the next corner too fast.

Over the limit is thrilling

but actually slow.

Just a hot mess on the edge of crashing.

Getting real feedback on riding or racing is invaluable, especially from a pro who knows. [Kris Keath]

Kenny helped me dial it in.

He said my leaning in is something bad waiting to happen,

and forcing it only compounds the mistakes.

He said use the front wheel to steer,

and roll the throttle earlier to make her turn.

Kenny likes to keep it simple.

Don’t overwhelm the student.

Focus on one or two things to make progress.

His approach paid off,

I was going quicker yet calmer.

Flat track can be brutal, so EZ Does It.

The average age of students in Kenny's school was 50 for the first two years...something worth noting! [Kris Keath]

Kenny has coached over 100 students just this year.

For the first two years the average age of his students was 50.

Are you listening, motorcycle industry people?

Dahlin has spent a lifetime flat track racing.

As a kid, he rode to the races hanging on the back of his daddy's Harley.

Kenny climbed thru the ranks to carry an AMA Pro number.

You benefit from his experience by taking his school.

I think you'll agree it's well worth it.

 

 

Michael Lawless [@electric_horseman], our 'Poet of Packed Earth', is the Flat Track Editor for TheVintagent.com, and has his own blog: Electric Horseman

The Highline: Morgen Mischler

What does it take to be a motorcycle racer?
Some outside our circle might say 'balls'.
But to a racer, risk is a calculated decision, not blind aggression.
Outsiders have no idea what self-control and self-discipline it demands,
from eating right to working out.
Time spent wrenching while others go drinking.
It takes more than dreams.
It takes hard work and plenty of it.
And for most, years of struggling.
And when you make the main event,
you're way back on the third row.

How it feels: all bunched up in turn 1, looking for a magic line. [Steve Koletar]
I asked Morgen Mischler for his thoughts the morning after his big win in New York:

"Ever since I was a little kid, people would tell me I had balls of steel (lol). The first thing I’m thinking sitting on the third row is I’ve got 8 people ahead of me. I need to position myself on the line so I can get the traction I need to close that gap to the leaders. Starting is a big key in this sport, especially if the racing funnels down in the corner to a single file (which I loathe). The next thing is making sure the guys ahead of me are good starters and aren’t going to be roadblocks in the first corner, but also to hit a line I’ve found on the warm-up lap to give myself a chance to move forward."

Tell me about passing - are you stalking them or killing everything in your path?

"Passing on the highline. For me, it’s threading a needle others don’t think about threading. Trusting my bike placement won’t be in the marbles and having enough mid-corner speed to make the pass and keep it under control without running my clutch lever into their exhaust or knee, risking going down. If I’m the only one on the high line, it’s more about how fast I can run that line and find what else may be faster. Up there it’s more about finding your marks and hitting them while trying to find spots to improve and not lose time in the process of experimenting with the line. If someone else is on the mainline like Volusia, then it’s more like stalking and trying to find where you can squeak by. It takes a lot more commitment to thread the needle and come down to the mainline ahead of whoever was ahead of you."

At times out front means all alone, but not usually... [Steve Koletar]
What does it feel like to ride on the limit?

"My Lima video kinda shows my bike on the limit. It’s a badass, the bike becomes an effective extension of your body, so much of it is bike feel. When you have the gearing right it makes everything a lot easier because you fall into a rhythm. My bike is built very well by Vance and Hines. I can't thank them enough for their support. I don’t like ripping my fast bike on the limiter unless it’s at a national, gotta take it easy on that thing cause these pockets are pretty shallow compared to some teams. Not a huge fan of rebuilding things, so I try not to beat up my equipment outside of nationals. Really fortunate Vance and Hines builds all my KTMs. My main bike is a stout. I'm working on getting a backup machine just as powerful too."

What it's like running high? (the high line AKA 'high, wide & handsome')

"The highline is the slower way around, but it carries your momentum instead of having to slow down as much for the corner. There are so many different approaches to riding the lines that form. Some tracks you can’t get off of the main groove where all the rubber forms or you’re going backward in a hurry. A lot of it is people ride defensive and guard the inside. Last year Indy mile and this year Volusia II for example you couldn’t get off the mainline, but people wanted to protect the bottom so they wouldn’t charge into the corner as fast. I had to leave it on longer and flirt with the top of the groove next to the marbles to get enough momentum to pass them and immediately close the door to get on the mainline to make the pass. It’s a tough needle to thread because just above where the rubber has formed on the track is marbles of dirt that will carry you up the track"

It feels good to win! Morgen Mischel enjoys the rush, and the adulation, after a win in NY. [Steve Koletar]
Tell me about the euphoric feeling of victory?

"It’s a large amount of being pleased with yourself and knowing you just whooped some ass. Along with the relief of getting first after the stress of it. But euphoric is an accurate description."

Tell me about race day?

"An overview of the day was that we switched shocks to something I thought would work, chased the setup with it and qualified 20th. We switched back to the shock from the other day and made some adjustments before the semi to see if it would help. Mark and I had the provisional card ready just in case I didn’t get into the top 8 😂 but went from the 3rd row to 5th in the semi. Nailed a start and picked my way through on the first lap and put my head down. If you look at the gap, I picked up .1+ almost every lap. I didn’t check to see the gap until there were 2 laps to go and get a better view of it in the last corner on the last lap."

Tell me about your plans for the future?

"I’m not totally sure what the future may hold for me. I’m so invested in my program, I’m just trying to piece the right support together to actually make my program remotely comparable to the factory teams. I’m sure if we’d compare budgets, it’d be laughable. I’d also want to take everyone that’s supported me this far along because they deserve it just as much as I do. I’m fortunate to have the support I do because I never thought I’d get this far. Also, I would like to give extra special thanks to Randy Triplet, Bill Mischler, and Mark Muth."

A moment in the pits with our writer, Michael Lawless, and Mischler's team. [Steve Koletar]
This was great fun putting this together.
Morgen gives a good glimpse of what's in his head.
It all came together easily.
I was so stoked to be at the American Flat Track race in New York.
This was the first time back at the track with photographer/wingman Steve Koletar.
He's the 'Weegee' of dirt track. Be it sprint cars or flat track bikes.
Steve has a gift of capturing those magic moments seen here in this article.
We palled around the pits talking to riders and tuners alike.
This was the first time I talked at length with Morgen Mischler.
I was impressed by how talkative he was for a flat tracker racer, articulate too.
Morgen mentioned he was game for The Vintagent.
I knew he was serious when I saw Mischler started to followed me on Instagram.
We wrote this together without even talking.
Just using Instagram.
We plan on keeping these lines of commutations open for future updates.

Up close and personal. [Steve Koletar]
Michael Lawless [@electric_horseman], our 'Poet of Packed Earth', is the Flat Track Editor for TheVintagent.com, and has his own blog: Electric Horseman


The Man Who Beat Marquez

He was all of 20 years old.
Yeah, he had a Grand National Championship under his belt,
but no passport.
When the ink dried, he hopped a jet to Spain.
To face a man
even the great Valentino Rossi couldn't beat.

Brad Baker's style and skill made him the National Flat Track Champion, but would it serve him against the very best racer in the world, Marc Marquéz? [Brad Baker]
In the road racing world,
Marquez was the newly crowned MotoGP wonder-boy
whose speed seemed effortless
and victory inevitable.
The Superprestigio race
was created to showcase Marquez' ability
to dominate on dirt as well as asphalt in front on his countrymen.
Two worlds would collide in Spanish arena.
For the first time, a MotoGP World Champion would
face an American Flat Track Champion on a dirt track.
The idea was to jump-start the then-declining sport of flat track
and legitimize the sport to the nonbelievers.

Superprestegio was meant to bring the best of different motorcycle racing disciplines together,
but no American Flat Track riders were invited initially.
American journalist Mark Gardiner heckled the promoters via social media,
and soon after, the new American champ,
Brad Baker received his invitation
and an offer of a bike from the Spanish KTM importer.

Two brilliant and very young racers: Marc Marquéz and Brad Baker. [Brad Baker]
Arriving in Spain,
Brad was hustled to a press conference,
suitcases in hand,
and met his competitors.
They may have been superstars,
but every one was friendly.
Brad was surprised by the sea of press
and the army of enthusiastic fans.
He'd never been put on such a pedestal.
Motorcycle racing is huge in Spain,
but American flat track racing
has a county fair vibe.
After the press conference,
a fellow racer toured him around Barcelona.
From the back of a scooter,
Brad saw the old city,
its architecture and its nightclubs.

Arriving at the oval dirt track,
was where Baker finally felt at home.
This was his world.
His European competitors were pleasantly surprised
and found him a fine ambassador.
The Superprestegio format had two categories,
dirt racers and road racers.
The top 4 from each final advanced to the super final.
Baker dominated the dirt
while Marquez had his way with road racers.

Up close and personal: a match between the very best in the world. [Brad Baker]
They faced each other for the first time in the Super Final.
When the gates dropped,
Marquez came out swinging,
taking the holeshot.
But Baker was on him,
showing a wheel constantly.
A few laps in,
Brad ran around Marquez' outside in turn four.
but Marquez hit him firmly,
bouncing Baker off the outer wall
hard enough to bend his exhaust.
Baker said 'he was aiming for me'.
Marquez was playing for keeps.
But this wasn't Bakers' first rodeo.
He lived the unwritten rule in flat track:
you can bump but you can't knock 'em down.
He gathered himself up and set off in pursuit.

Baker lined up for a pass down the front straight,
charging hard up the inside.
Marquez tried to block him,
chopping his throttle and swinging to the left,
but his timing was late.
He bounced off Baker's side
and was slammed unceremoniously onto the track.
Sure seemed like flat track justice to me.
Baker looked back to see the MotoGP champ
lying on the track and thought "Oh F***!"
He took it easy for a lap or two
to show it wasn't intentional,
then picked up the pace and wheelied across the finish line
to take his win.

Marquez did not seem too happy at first,
but shook it off and congratulated Baker.
All was forgiven, and the party began.
Baker returned to Spain many times,
and now considers it a second home.

For years after, I badgered Baker for an interview
about that first Superprestigio race.
But every time I lined him up,
he'd throttle up and out.
Did he not see the significance?
In 20 years he'd be giving speeches about the night he beat Marquez.
I wasn't going to give up,
though I could read between the lines.
At that point, Baker was too busy looking forward to talk about the past.
For him, life was a blur of travel and racing, punctuated by victories.

Gladiators and friends at the 2013 Superprestigio race: Marc Marquéz and Brad Baker [Brad Baker]
My brother John and I were having dinner with Peter Starr,
who directed 'Take it to the Limit.'
As a kid, I saw the film and it changed me.
Suddenly, being a fan was not enough.
I sat quietly, soaking up his words,
trying not to say anything awkward.
But I had a chance to speak
of a race that deserves to be remembered.
Of a young American who traveled overseas
to face the World Champion,
on a borrowed motorcycle.
I confessed I'd been struggling to lock down an interview.
Peter asked "so what's the holdup?" and picked up his phone,
right in the middle of dinner.
"Tom, ask Baker to make time for Mike Lawless."
Peter encouraged me to keep at it.
Maybe I'd get my story after all.

A few weeks later, in the pits at Williams Grove,
it's after the main and packed with fans.
I'm just a fly on the wall,
but the sea of people parts
and Baker walks over to me, still sweating hard from the race.
'Hey, sorry I've been tied up.
I got stuff going on for the next couple of weeks.
Message me and we'll talk."
I was floored - did that just really happen?

I waited those weeks, then nervously shot him a text.
Several minutes later my phone rang.
Coffee in hand, I grabbed my notepad, and had that interview.
Flat trackers are a humble lot
and Brad is no different.
He plays the strong silent type well,
but warmed up as the words flowed,
about his wonderment for that Spanish experience.
The interview was worth the wait.
Thank you, Brad Baker.

 

Michael Lawless [@electric_horseman], our 'Poet of Packed Earth', is the Flat Track Editor for TheVintagent.com, and has his own blog: Electric Horseman

The Last Victory

It's a long way to the top if you want to rock 'n roll.

Damn shame Baker is starting way back on the fourth row.

Seemed plenty fast all day but the Harleys kept breaking.

Guess they turned fragile in pursuit of speed.

Mechanical failure snatched him from contention repeatedly that season.

This was his final National for the factory team.

He won't win a Championship today,

but maybe redemption.

Brad Baker in full gladiator mode. [Michael Lawless]
The track started smooth and fast but turned rough and dusty.

Conditions forced more than one racer into survival mode,

everyone ran the safer line down low.

When the lights turned green for main,

Baker dropped into beast mode.

He brazenly ran the high line out by the fence.

Spectacularly over the limit.

Passing competitors on a wide-open throttle, hopping through the ruts and blinding dust.

There's no room for error running high, wide and handsome.

Insiders stood with mouths open as Baker roared by.

Baker gloried in the madness,

passing the entire field, taking the lead on lap 3.

With no challengers, victory was his - if the Harley held together.

Baker later said he took the first ten laps WFO.

Blasting through lapped traffic, the blinding dust pasted his taped-on faceshield.

With eyes burning from the dust,  he eased off but still won handily.

The sweet wheelie of victory. Brad Baker takes the checkered flag at a heat race in NY. [American Flat Track]
The battle for the Championship was settled well behind him.

In their excitement did the cheering crowd notice Baker's win?

I knew I'd seen something special.

It wasn't until the post-race party I knew others saw it too.

Some racers spoke in awe of his riding, some shook their heads side to side.

One tuner joked he'd worried 'Baker's balls would get tangled up in his chain'.

I was floored by the honesty of the new Champ when he confessed,

he tried to hang on to Baker but couldn't.

He'd almost pitched it away in the chasing, but reminded himself

he was there to win the Championship,

not beat Baker.

I couldn't find Baker for comment.

Brad Baker just ahead of Jared Mees at the white flag - one more lap to go. [American Flat Track]
I'd been chasing Baker ever since.

A Media badge doesn't guarantee face time.

I saw my chance on a break at The Kentucky Mile.

Baker stood in the shadow of the transport, like a gladiator, looking lean and mean.

Waiting for the battle to come.

But a fan munching the largest chicken leg I ever saw beat me to him.

"Hey, Brad, you going to win tonight?"

The hard look of a racer dropped into a smile.

"I'm going to try - hey thanks for coming out tonight man."

The fan was aware Baker noticed his chicken leg.

"I guess you can eat all the chicken you want huh?"

"I'm allowed 6 ounces with lunch and it can't be breaded or fried."

"Really, wow, what's that you're drinking?"

"It's a gallon of water with lemons & cucumber.

At the end of the day, I gotta hand it back empty to my trainer or else I got to drink it right there."

The fan stood, comprehending that flat track racers had changed,

and as he drifted away, Baker eyed me wearily knowing I'm media.

"Hey Brad - what it's take to run high wide & handsome?"

He took a hit from his water jug and said, "Big huevos,"

smiling broadly. ​

"What's it like going that fast with that wall in your face?"

"You don't see the fences, you're looking where you want to go."

"Don't you think about..."

"You can't..."

"What would happen if it goes wrong?"

Brad laughed,  "I'd end up face down in the parking lot."

He reached for his helmet as his crew fired up his bike.

"Hey, I was thinking we could do an article about your beating Marquez,

or about winning Santa Rosa?"

"Yeah ok, you know where to find me..."

That night Baker beat Henry Wiles for third place by mere inches

in one of the most electrifying battles of the season.

Brad Baker taking a moment with Olive Lawless. [Michael Lawless]
I wanted my daughter Olive to see the spectacle that is the Springfield Mile.

We did the 16-hour drive with our friend Barb Shoemaker.

Since we weren't hauling Jake's race bike she insisted we stop for Krispy Kremes.

Olive stopped calling her Ms. Shoemaker and switched to Aunt Barb.

I got to show her my favorite spots to observe the race action:

row one at start/finish line takes your breath away,

inside turn one against the rail is magic too,

the spooky tunnel under the track, and the media room.

Walking through the pits we bumped into Baker.

He's sweating hard in full leathers, right after practice.

Brad thanks me for the Marquez article.

I introduce Olive.

Much to her amusement, he reached out and said 'Hi, I'm Brad'.

They chat for a few minutes.

As we walk away she says,

"You make him sounds like such a desperado, Dad, but he's really nice."

Brad Baker as an advisor to the Indian factory flat track team, with Kelsey Stauffer and Jake Shoemaker. [Michael Lawless]
I was gutted when Brad was permanently hurt at that shitty little X Games short track.

For me, it was the day the music died.

Baker had seemed unbreakable.

But a wheelchair hasn't stolen Brad from the sport he loves.

He's a TV commentator for American Flat Track and an advisor to the Indian factory team.

He's set to be married this year to his sweetheart Kelcey Stauffer.

His passion for dirt racing led him in a new direction,

and he recently started racing a dirt track car with hand controls.

It reminds him of the old days - just him, a bike and van.

It's not easy, but that was never the point.

Life ain't over 'til the checkered flag is thrown.

Brad Baker at the hand controls of his circle track racing car... [Michael Lawless]
...and looking very much like the #6 we know. [Michael Lawless]
 

Michael Lawless [@electric_horseman], our 'Poet of Packed Earth', is the Flat Track Editor for TheVintagent.com, and has his own blog: Electric Horseman

Passing, Pain, and Purpose

The moment after the best pass of my life

Indoor short track racing is motorcycle combat.
Greenlights on - you attack.
No quarters asked or given.
The competition crowds your personal space.
Passing is hard work,
you must be aggressive and totally committed.
The intensity makes it rewarding.
I look forward all year to indoor racing at Timonium.

The impossible was what I needed: a do-all motorcycle.
Big enough to race outdoor but small enough to race indoor.
And street legal so I could commute to work.
Searching the classifieds, a Buell Blast seemed to fit the bill.
Not that I knew of anyone who raced one.
It was just for fun - to make the show.
I had the tank and tail repainted.
She might not be fast, but she'd look good.
My competitors looked amused, strolling past.
The Buell was not a competitive ride:
too big and way too heavy.
The ice was broken when some kid admired the paint job,
gushing 'it's orange like the General Lee.'

Yep, it's orange, but in an H-D kinda way, not a rebel flag kinda way. What was that kid thinking? Don't answer that. [Michael Lawless]
On the Buell's maiden heats,
the first few laps were get-to-know-you.
By the third session, I'm first in line in the cattle chute.
The safe bet is to start at the back:
you're less likely to get run over.
If you're first out, you gotta run
like you're chased by wild dogs.
It was sketchy to start up front,
but how else do you learn?
You just gotta go for it.
The lights flashed green,
the back tire chirped as I dropped the clutch,
and the big single thundered down the straight,
the pack snapping at my wheel.

The brake squeals as she starts to slide sideways
into the first corner.
I spin up the rear tire coming onto the straight,
drifting to the outer wall.
Into the next corner,
a rider squeezes by on the inside.
Time slows down, he's in front but drifting wide,
I squeeze the brake calmly,
swapping outside for in,
aiming the portly Buell beneath him.
Taking a squeaky line I re-pass him on the exit,
so close I can see WTF on his face.
My line had the drive out,
but his lighter/faster 450 motored past.

Not a lotta room here, it's elbow to elbow on a short, slippery concrete track. Gladiatorial, like. [Michael Lawless]
He was taking the inside, so I gunned around him to brake later,
blocking him so I could lead on the main straight.
He popped up braking as I was hard on the throttle,
and we went bar to bar, BLAM! Contact.
My bars snapped to the right,
and I slammed onto the concrete,
as the other rider ricocheted off the outer wall.
I'm told the third-place rider ran over me.
I slid to a halt, flat on my back with the Buell over my left side,
The engine still running.
I reached shut to her off.
The marshals waved red flags yelling 'Don't move!'
I hit the kill switch and leaned back
as the ceiling lights blurred.

It's a warm summer day.
I'm 8 years old and my mom is so young.
We're doing yard work,
Laughing and having fun.

Someone is yelling my name.
My visor yanks up and my eyes open.
Wow - I was racing a motorcycle.
It a second to sort which was real.
Sadness sweeps over me.
I miss talking with my mom.

The marshal asked the normal questions to see how hard
I'd been rattled.
What's your name, where are you?
I said I needed to get back up for practice.
As the marshal helped me up the lights go out again.
I go limp and crumple to the floor.

Not the best of days, but hey, a visit to Mom on the astral plane can't be all bad? Michael talks to God all the time though. [Michael Lawless]
It's dark, I'm cold, and I can't see anything.
Is this judgment day?
God, we had this conversation before.
You remember?
A certain AMA pro and I discussed dying.
I wanted to check out with my riding boots on.
To leave this world like a man.
Not to wither away with colon cancer
or some other horrible illness.
Yes God, that's right, the Pro
who unwillingly taught me to make that pass.
You know I was going for P1.
I could check out like a boss.
Prayer is talking and meditation is listening.
It got quiet.
Ok God - I know my is job is to take care of Olive.

My eyes open as the EMTs cut off my body armor.
A fellow racer lurked in the background.
The EMTs repeat questions.
I impatiently asked
"can I get back out for practice now?''
The racer turned around and yelled
"He's OK!"
The EMTs laugh "No!"
The female EMT asked to cut off my shirt.
I said "I like it when you tear it off."
The male EMT started laughing again.
As I was wearing my lucky t-shirt,
I asked if she would kindly help slide my right arm out.
She looked over my bruised torso and noted
the broken left collar bone.
"You've hit your head too and need a hospital."
I agreed with her but pointed out
it would be better if I went to my local hospital.
After much discussion they relented.
But they insisted I leave the track on the stretcher.
I felt embarrassed.
The female EMT said,  "Don't look sad -
smile and wave to the people in the stands."
I did, and was surprised by the relieved
looks and the smiles I got back.
As I was carried off the track, an upset Olive waited.
I made a silly face, "I feel like Cleopatra up here!"
She laughed.

Olive, for whom Michael must live. Simple as that: our children come first. [Michael Lawless]
I told her my shoulder was hurt so our day was done.
Several racers checked on me and offered assistance.
They loaded up my stuff and tied a sling around my arm.
I was touched by the friendship and warmth.
Every time my body moved,
I felt broken glass in my shoulder.
The pain kept me focused, driving my manual-transmission truck two hours home.
Olive and I talked the entire way, never turned on the radio.
If anything it made us closer,
and a trip we will both remember.

Pulling into the driveway both the truck and I were about out of gas.
I leaned my head on the steering wheel as my door opened:
my girlfriend is there to take me to the hospital.
I'm fresh from the track.
Still in my sweaty racing gear with my left boot taped on, my arm in a sling.
She looks me up and down.
"You look so damaged."
Off to the hospital, but the ER doc can't set my collarbone,
and I waited to see an ortho the next week.
I texted my brother John,
who drove up the next morning, unloaded my truck,
and insisted I use his truck since it's automatic.

Just to be clear, Mike isn't the only Lawless with a motorcycle problem: big brother John has some sweet rides too, and indulges in vintage road racing. [John Lawless]
All seemed good, till the lecture.
"Michael it's like you're 50 years old
and have decided to take up bull riding.  What the f**k Michael?"
I hear where that's coming from.
He cares about me.
I'm lucky to have a big brother like that.

Am I upset or disappointed with crashing?
Not in the least.
Those few brief laps were memorable.
I felt like Senna....a racer battling from position.
Not some voyeur sitting up in the stands or watching on TV.
It was real.

I came a long way from being a broken divorcee.
Racing gave my life purpose again.
It got me out of where I was.
It took hard work and dedication.
I train for racing. I push my limits.
But I found myself along the way.

Indoor short track is pure excitement to watch, and falls are not typically dangerous...unless a rider gets run over. [Michael Lawless]
Michael Lawless [@electric_horseman], our 'Poet of Packed Earth', is the Flat Track Editor for TheVintagent.com, and has his own blog: Electric Horseman

The Rush Job

Where were you a year ago?
It all looks easy now.
James Rispoli is dominating American Flat Track:
7 Victories in Production Twins this season.
James is the fastest Harley Davidson rider on the circuit.
Finally, Willie G. and the boys have something to be proud of.
It's the synergy of right rider, right team and right bike.
Rispoli is in that magic flow state,
his riding burns with intensity,
his consistency uncanny.
The competition is rightly spooked.

The sweet taste of victory for James Rispoli. [James Rispoli]
A short while ago, things were different.
James returned to America
after the high of European Superbike racing.
He came home to his roots - flat track.
To prove he'd lost none of his mojo.
Despite the wild contrast between those two worlds.

On our first conversation, the connection was poor.
"Where are you calling from?
Are you still in Europe or something?"
James confessed he was in Mexico
stunt riding for movies NorteAmericanos will never see.
He realized I was shocked into silence by his revelation.
"Hey man, I'm getting paid good money to do what I love."
I pictured him in some seedy bar checking out the local talent,
a Hemmingway-like existence.
He added that he was getting lots of seat time,
training every day,
but admitted the hours were long on set,
the endless waiting
before pulling off sketchy shit the locals wouldn't dare.
To James, he was living the dream.
Making bank riding motorcycles.
While working deals for next season's ride.
Here is a fighter who will not quit,
who knows how it feels to show up to a race with a negative $1000 balance.

Racing has never been easy. If you've read our previous article on James, you know the struggles he's pushed through. [James Rispoli]
James was stoked to land the Latus Harley-Davidson ride for the 2020 season.
There silver lining to the black cloud that is COVID
was the team had plenty of time to train.
They'd turned over 500 laps before the first race.
James spoke of a win-win situation
having the Latus team's professionalism
plus the savvy of former champ Joe Kopp as team manager.

The Latus Harley-Davidson team is fielding one wicked fast 750 - James Rispoli's lap times typically would put him first among H-D riders in any class. [James Rispoli]
Motorcycle racing is a team sport:
great riding is not enough,
but a gifted rider like Rispoli puts wind in the team's sails.
At the Indy Mile, an issue in the Semi meant a 17th spot start for the Main.
James blitzed thru the pack to climb to 4th on the first lap
and brought her home in 2nd place.
The next night, he won the main.
He was 12.32 seconds ahead of the pack when the checkers flew.
Riding like that inspires everyone.
It warms my heart to watch this fighter see such glorious success

A man in the flow, and inches from a major title. [James Rispoli]
[Post-script: James Rispoli won his Championship in the Production Twins category on Oct 16 2020]

Michael Lawless [@electric_horseman], our 'Poet of Packed Earth', is the Flat Track Editor for TheVintagent.com, and has his own blog: Electric Horseman

The Dark Place

I was in a dark place.
Home alone yet on the run.
Nothing left and nowhere to go.

Windows open on a quiet night,
I could hear the sound of a muffled twin approaching.
The rider shut her off about a block away,
then the quiet ringing of chains on sprockets
coasting down the street,
into my drive.

Brakes hissing to a stop.

 

Boots knocked my wooden steps.
A brogue in my doorway announced
'God Bless all here.'

Is this how it ends?
The running was over,
so I handed him a cuppa.
He poured out an inch then added some of his own.
For the sake of the craic, I asked if the exhaust was stock.
He shook his head,
"They don't need to know if I coming or going laddie, that's my business.
You're a good man.
It's fine to take what you want, but there's a price."
He told me what was expected of me.
And not to worry,
I'd find myself on the road.
It was safest for me.
"Follow your voice, you know the one.
Do what's right versus what feels good.
They need your words boy.
Nothing's free - there's a price tag on everything.
Even your freedom."

I gave him my word.
We locked eyes and shook on it.
"Thanks for the cuppa...be free."
He coasted downhill, dropping the clutch in second gear.
Odd such a hard man rides a quiet machine.
And just like that, Death rolled back towards New York City.

(For the riders Jack & Duncan)

 

Michael Lawless [@electric_horseman], our 'Poet of Packed Earth', is the Flat Track Editor for TheVintagent.com, and has his own blog: Electric Horseman

Racing Towards The Dream

Cameron Smith is the only African American racer

in American Flat Track Racing.

But color doesn't matter in the rough and tumble of a dirt race.

Are you fast or not?

Cameron Smith in the zone with Dave Evans. [Jodi Johnson]

The Smith family calls Coatesville, Pennsylvania home,

where the several local tracks mean motorcycle racing is popular.

His mother and father started him on two wheels at age five.

Just like any other sport, or music - start 'em early.

Cameron competed against some of the same riders he's racing today.

His father is one of the nicest people you will meet at the track.

It would not be a race without the Smith family.

He was allowed to race all the way through high school

as long as he maintained his grades.

Racing has been a constant in his life thanks to his family.

Cameron is grateful for their love and support.

He feels the same sense of excitement while racing he did as a child.

Cameron Smith sliding his 2015 Honda racer to victory against the best in the sport. [Jodi Johnson]
Cam had his first big win in a professional race last year.

All the hard work, blood, sweat and tears paid off that day.

His family was over the moon when he pulled into the pits.

As he prepared to take his Victory Lap with the checkered flag,

he offered his mom a ride,

but she wanted her son to enjoy his moment in the spotlight.

Cam had even won the sprint before the main event, the "Dash for Cash".

That's a day to cherish the rest of his life.

Smith with Dave Evans and Olive, the author's daughter. [Michael Lawless]
It's a long road from that first motorcycle race at age five.

Race day can be hectic, exciting and dangerous.

But the everyday life of a racer requires discipline.

Racers are athletes in top physical condition.

Cam is on a strict diet, works out daily, has a personal trainer.

A monotonous travel schedule leaves little free time.

He is totally committed to the dream of being champion.

Cameron Smith out front in the Singles class. [Michael Lawless]
It's not all sunshine and victories though.

A racer can struggle with his/her machine,

pushing the bike to do what s/he wants, to be manageable at speed.

But flat track racing can be very unforgiving.

Things happen even with proper preparation and all the right moves.

Smith with his crew. [Jodi Johson]
Last April, Cameron looked forward to racing

in warm Georgia weather after the long winter.

The cold damp weather was a surprise after driving from Philly.

When the lights turned green, the pack charged into the first corner,

and one of the front runners spun out.

Cam was on him with nowhere to go and riders flanking either side.

Colliding with the downed machine,

he was thrown over the handlebars and slammed to the ground.

Cam was fortunate not to have broken any bones but the impact of

banging his head on the hard clay track

meant racing was over for that day.

Thank God for a good helmet.

Cameron Smith #44 with his Honda CRF450. [Jodi Johnson]
When a rider does not complete a race, there's no prize money.

Racing is a stretch for Cameron and his family.

It would be great to have two of the latest machines in his pits,

but Cameron does what he can with a 2015 Honda CRF450.

He never loses sight of that dream.

Cam hopes to ride the growing popularity of flat track

while finding new sponsors and keeping good people around him.

Back at ya Cameron! [Jodi Johnson]
We discuss creating an event in Philadelphiato promote the sport of flat track racing with locals,

the street kids and 12 O'Clock boys.

Get them off the street and into racing.

Some of those kids are remarkable riders.

Chasing the dream of becoming the National Champion. [Jodi Johnson]
Smith started 2020 off rightwith a win, beating champions Corey Texter and Dan Bromley.

You can help Cameron Smith in his National Championship bid

by watching him at American Flat Track or on NBCSN.

Follow him on Facebook and on Instagram.

 

Michael Lawless [@electric_horseman], our 'Poet of Packed Earth', is the Flat Track Editor for TheVintagent.com, and has his own blog: Electric Horseman

Flat Track Fite Klub

I've been trying to go straight my whole life.

- Chris Carr, seven-time Grand National Champ.

Show me the dirt! Bryan Smith (#4) running outside Jared Mees (#9) [Class of 79 / Charlie Roberts]
In flat track racing, in order to beat the other guy, you need to go straight longer and turn in quicker.
Carr has been teaching this for years in a curriculum he developed for the school "American Supercamp".
They focus on how to get a bike in, get it turned, and get it picked up on the fat of the tire.
To square the corner off and accelerate down the straightaway carrying as much speed as possible.
As Carr points out, 'they don't have finish lines in the middle of the corner.'
As a sportbike rider / sometimes road racer, I thought I knew a little about being quick.
But once I got around flat track racers, I realized I knew nothing.
Springer looks back...which is where he's used to seeing the competition. [Taylor Bellegue]
I crossed paths with Carr on the race track at 'American Supercamp'.
A mock race is staged for the students at the end of the day.
I was pushing hard, chasing a friend but couldn't find a way around him.
Suddenly, I was aware another rider was on me.
With zero room, Carr squirted past me on inside.
He squared off the next corner and rocketed by my buddy, taking us both in less than three corners.
We were blown away that someone on an identical bike could pass us so effortlessly.
He sure seemed a lot taller than 5'5" after that race.
The Bultaco Astro was the hottest 360cc class flat tracker in its day...which was 40+ years ago! [Taylor Bellegue]
I hit YouTube to find race action of Carr in his prime,
battling the greats like Scottie Parker and Jay Springsteen (AKA Springer).
I never though I'd get a chance to watch them race, but I did - thanks to 'Flattrack Fite Klub'.
The Fite Klub concept is to pit four legends against four current stars.
The race is pay per view (PPV), broadcast in 64 countries.
Jared Mees looking perfectly at home on the Astro...which is a replacement for the one he'd already broken! Flat out or why bother? [Taylor Bellegue]
To level the playing field, riders compete on vintage Bultaco Astros.
The Astros were build before today's flat track stars were even born,
but are one of the most iconic flat track racers of the last 50 years.
Their origin legend is racer Mike Kidd sent a Bultaco motor to Champion to build a frame.
Mike took it to the Houston Astrodome and won easily.
The bike was sent to the Bultaco factory in Spain, where it was copied down to its bent left footpeg.
The new model was called 'Astro' in honor of its maiden victory.
Back in 1974-1975 Springsteen and Parker raced them with success.
Jay Springsteen and Scotty Parker check out their machines.
Do they look ready to race? Were they ever not ready to race? [Taylor Bellegue]
Before you dismiss the Bultaco Astro as a relic and a sop for old racers,
keep in mind that at the Astro Invitational, racers like
Charlie Roberts and Jackie Mitchell ran within 0.4sec. of the current AFT Singles times at the Atlanta Half-Mile last year.
Very impressive considering the riders were vintage too.
Scottie Parker (#1) heads off Chris Carr (#4). [Class of 79 / Charlie Roberts]
For Fite Klub, the racers included four Grand National Champions:
 -Scott Parker: Nine Grand National Championships, with a record-setting 94 wins, regarded as the 'G.O.A.T.'
 -Chris Carr: Seven Grand National Championships, twice World Land Speed Record Holder
 -Jay Springsteen: Three Grand National Championships, with 43 wins
 -Joe Kopp: 2000 Grand National Champion & 2003 SuperMoto Champion.
Jared Mees and Ryan Sipes prep for practice. [Taylor Bellegue]
The future legends include:
 -Jared Mees: Three Grand National Championships and Two American Flat Track Championships. He sets the bar for professionalism and fitness.  Mees is the man to beat.
 -Bryan Smith: 2016 Grand National Champion. Hard-nosed and stolid, he is known as a master on 'the Mile'.
  (note: Smith has quite a sense of humor as well. I was walking along interviewing another racer once. It was early race day morning; they had just opened the gates to let the race haulers in. One of the haulers was driving slowly alongside us.  The hauler kept getting closer and closer to me until I walked into the racer I was trying to interview. I looked over to shoot the driver a dirty look and saw Bryan Smith behind the wheel of the hauler, laughing hysterically. The other racer laughed too, saying 'Smith does the same shit to me...but we're wheel to wheel at 140mph')
  -Sam Halbert: 2009 Overall Grand National Champion.  Don't let the fact that he looks like James Franco's young brother fool you.  This is one fierce competitor with the ability to reach in deep and make magic happen. With Halbert, all is fair in love and war.
  -Ryan Sipes:  2019 ISDE World Champion, First American to win the ISDE 6 Day in 2015, scored victories in Supercross, GNCC, AFT TT races. The very versatile racer from Kentucky showed up with a mason jar of his states finest... for training purposes only.
Bryan Smith and Jared Mees discuss the state of the track. [Taylor Bellegue]
a charity that supports injured flat track racers in their time of need.
The Rookie Class of 79 raises funds via events like this, and auctioning off unique racing memorabilia.
Often memorabilia is donated from and autographed by flat track champions and racers.
Supporting this noble charity is a great way to help injured racers while acquiring some very cool motorcycle art.
The charity was formed by racers for racers. Providing financial support as well as assisting badly injured  racers get home, and literally get them back on their feet.
Thumbs up for Bultaco! Scotty Parker gets the royal treatment. [Taylor Bellegue]
The race format was run tournament style, racers paired up in a series of heat races and elimination rounds.
Practice started as day transitioned to night.
You could feel the excitement as racers took to the track in pairs.
So many magic moments.
Mees was spectacular, immediately up to speed and burning with intensity.
Watching Parker & Springer going wheel to wheel was a pinch-me moment.
Being wowed by the effortless grace Springsteen possessed practicing holeshots.
Regarding Springsteen, one can only wonder 'what could have been' if Harley had a good road racer in the late seventies.
The Bultaco must have been an alien experience for the lanky Supercross winning Ryan Sipes, but he adapted quickly and put in a strong performance considering the Bultaco's shifter is on the right side.
When the racing started, we had a feeling there might be some fireworks between the Mees and Halbert pairing.
But with Jared being so fast in practice, I thought he could just clear off on Halbert too.
Sammy is always Sammy, he attacked Mees with everything he had,
showing Mees a wheel repeatedly and running Jared out to the rail, with Mees hanging on for the win.
There is more to victory than money when pride is on the line.
Equally impressive was the battle between Mees and Smith.
They crisscrossed each other repeatedly lap after lap.
It was harmony at speed.
You could sense the trust these two have, to race so hard while making such close passes.
The Parker Race turned into redemption for Halbert.
Mees had beat Halbert fair and square in their earlier pairing.
Halbert knew he had one last chance to reach for the checker.
A ferocious battle erupted between Mees, Smith, and Halbert.
At one point they were three-wide coming through turn four, all running different lines.
Flat track racing at its finest.
Halbert, ever the brawler, snatched the win.
It was good to see him smiling again.
Racing is everything: all else is waiting. Bryan Smith and Jared Mees. [Taylor Bellegue]
The final came down a series of three heat races between Mees & Carr.
Mees was fast all day, but every time Carr when out, more rust fell to the wayside, and the faster he went.
Some were wondering if a man of Carr's age and shape could keep Mees honest.
(Carr joked earlier in the day, that at his age he needs a viagra not to piss on his feet)
As the riders walked onto the track, their tuners pushing theirs bikes behind them,
Scottie Parker, Carr rival and teammate from back in day, came up to the fence to cheer Carr on.
The first race was shockingly close until Mees' bike broke, giving the win to Carr.
Mees hoped onto a different Bultaco for the next race.
Carr kept him honest but Mees took him in the next two races for the overall victory.
And a perfect day of racing came to halt.
I am looking forward to watching the race again on Pay-per-view.
Sam Halbert runs #69 in honor of his late brother Jethro, who died while racing. [Class of 79 / Charlie Roberts]

The Vintagent would like to Thank Charlie Roberts & Terry Rymer.


What's Mees Got?

Do I have the best job in the world?

I get to hang out with the baddest flat track racers on earth.

The conversations might surprise you.

Humorously, everything but racing.

From dating apps to getting sponsors - it's all marketing.

Jared Mees in a reflective moment before a race. [Jodi Johnson[
They know I'm a fly on the wall, floating from pit to pit.

More than once I've been asked: What's Mees got?

They're looking for a simple answer but it's more complicated than that.

There's no weak link in Jared's chain.

Everything is top notch: team, sponsors, and bikes.

It's not one thing.

Over time Mees built a total package.

His home life is serene,

Jared's wife Nichole is a retired racer who understands.

His has balanced his life for a minimum of drama.

Not playing Tarzan on Tinder or at the bars.

They're all just traps.

You can't take your eyes off the ball at this level.

Keeping the important stuff in perspective. [Jodi Johnson]
Did I mention he's a terrific racer?

Relentless training and a focused diet have sharpened him.

To some fans, he's an overdog.

Their voices dismissive

Yeah...Mees won again

But Jared shrugs it off.

Laughing "You're only as good as your last win."

He is staggeringly successful for his generation.

Six championships with 48 wins along the way.

Not to mention the Horizon Award and Rookie of the Year.

How did he get there?

Staying out in front, obviously. [Michael Lawless]
His dad started him racing at 5.

Racing was a byproduct of his parent's divorce,

It was father/son time.

Jared had to wash his bike and do his chores if he wanted track time.

It taught him the work ethic he would later be known for.

And he loved to win.

Racing was fun.

He caught the attention of Moroney's Harley Davidson.

They offered to pay his entry fees if he wore their sweatshirts.

It was a lightbulb moment - hey, this could save dad some dollars.

Success equals money.

Jared's life is proof of hard work, as a racer and businessman.

We can't squeeze his career into a magazine article.

That would need a book.

Jared Mees winning on the regular, with Nicole and their baby. [Michael Lawless]
The COVID downtime has given the Champ time to reflect.

What advice can I give the next generation?

Do the hard work.

Have a plan and stick to it.

He wishes he enjoyed those magic moments a little longer,

let them soak in a bit.

You think it will last forever but it doesn't.

He's seen a lot over the years, carrying a target on his back most of the way.

"Most people only see five feet in front of them and one foot back.

Racing is my life, my hobby, and my second love."

He is grateful for sponsors like Indian Motorcycles, and an army of supporters.

He respects the racers he battles and loves the fans for coming out...especially at Lima.

 "Life could be worse - I could be digging ditches for ten bucks an hour."

Hi Ho, Hi Ho, it's off to work we go. "Beats digging ditches for ten bucks an hour." [Michael Lawless]
So, would I be right in guessing that The Springfield Mile, Day 2 was your best race of 2019?

You started on the penalty line, row four, battled through the pack to take the lead.

Fought it out with 8 or 9 riders to take an epic win.

"Yeah, it was a good one for sure. The last few laps were sketchy.

Lots of guys up front who weren't used to being there-just freakin' chaotic."

You came from a long way back brother.

"Ah thanks man, yeah, it was good.

If I had to pick one race though, I'd say Lima.

When you win Lima it's like you've conquered the world.

It's so physically demanding, wrestling that bike through that deep cushion.

Everyone wants to win there too.

I had a real duel with Carver, just slicing and dicing.

We make contact but I was able to get by on the outside for win.

It was super satisfying to win there, in front of all those fans.

I scored my first win there in 2005 on an XR750.

And now I'm the promoter for the event-crazy right?

Yeah, lots of friends and family there.

It was a helluva night."

Number 1 up front, but a target on his back. [AFTA]
Mees is a man of strong character

and carries himself like a champion.

Sometimes a simple sentence reveals the life inside.

Like 'flat track is my second love.'

No need to explain his number one.

Nicole is always by his side.

Start 'em early? [Mike Lawless]

 

 

Michael Lawless [@electric_horseman], our 'Poet of Packed Earth', is the Flat Track Editor for TheVintagent.com, and has his own blog: Electric Horseman

Higher Powered

From the outside, I looked pretty normal.

Just another guy walking the pits,

keeping on with my best gunfighter face.

Behind the mask was turbulence,

the fallout from my day job and personal life.

Maybe Chaplain Ray Rizzo saw something.

He stopped me in my tracks and asked if I needed a prayer.

Caught off guard and not wanting to be rude -  I said yes.

He didn't ask if I was Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim or even Buddhist.

Right there in the pits, Ray put a hand on my shoulder

and the other towards the sky.

"Father, we thank you....."

I walked away feeling my load a little lighter.

His words put me in the moment.

I realized I was grateful to be at the track enjoying a day with my extended racing family.

And that I was lucky, or dare I say blessed for the day.

Michael Lawless with Ray Rizzo. [Michael Lawless]

It’s risky writing about religion in a motorcycle publication.

Years ago I mentioned God in an article.

The editor cut it.

When I queried, he laughed, "You can rap about anything but Jesus."

Maybe Kanye was right.

[Jodi Johnson]

Chaplain Ray Rizzo is like spiritual glue

keeping the American Flat Track community intact.

He provides moral support, be it a kind word, prayer,

or even last rites.

He's at the center of every race weekend.

The Chaplain offers support to all, though not everyone is interested.

One racer flatly declined his offer of a prayer as they lined up in staging.

Unfortunately, he crashed heavily that day.

As they loaded him into the ambulance,

Ray asked if a prayer would comfort him.

This time he said yes.

Ray checked in on the racer during his recovery.

They remain close to this day.
[Jodi Johnson]

In racing, a dream can turn into a nightmare in seconds.

I shadowed a racer over a weekend for an article.

We met with his mother after work on Friday for a long drive out to the race.

In the race, another rider checked up into him,

and it was a heavy fall.

As he lay on the track motionless, his mother screamed his name.

Red flags and EMTs.

Relief as he opened his eyes.

The rush to the hospital,

then the waiting and anguish of uncertainty.

The comfort as the Chaplain arrived.

He offered us prayer and stayed beside while we waited for news.

Ray had ridden across town on a tiny 50cc scooter.

His concern was genuine.

I saw him differently after that.

[Jodi Johnson]

Racing reminds us life is fragile.

Our clock is ticking.

A racer's life is under the microscope with media and fans.

Success or failure is around the next corner.

It's easy to go off center

and it can test one's beliefs,

but we know there is no other life for us.

Feeling connected to a higher power can bring peace

and lend balance.

I asked Ray how he got started.

He dreamed of being a crewman for Richard Petty, but found his calling in the ministry.

Motor Racing Outreach landed him in the flat track scene, and he's been spiritually supporting our community since 2010.

You can find Raymond Rizzo on Facebook, Instagram, or even email.

 

Michael Lawless [@electric_horseman], our 'Poet of Packed Earth', is the Flat Track Editor for TheVintagent.com, and has his own blog: Electric Horseman


PS...You & Yours: Stay Well

Her sharp features made me wonder - is she French?

A group of hopefuls surrounded her at the party, competing for attention.

Striding by, I tipped my hat.

"Hey, you're that writer!"

"I read your article about that motorcycle racer who works in a coal mine.

You must be crazy to have gone down inside that mine."

All eyes shifted to me.

"I heard you write about motorcycle racing,

but that article conveys the human element as well."

The last comment caught me off guard.

She asked where she could find more of my work.

I was drowned out by the full-volume party,

so instead handed her my card.

Text if you have any questions ok?

Her lengthy the next day text floored me.

Fearing my reply might get lost in translation,

I suggested meeting for coffee.

I didn't realize coffee included dessert.

Our conversations were refreshing after the trauma of online dating.

The simplest things meant the most.

Holding hands and endless kisses - such a decadent treat.

We ate at my favorite taqueria or got coffee on the road.

Rolling down blue highways, her arms round my waist, her head resting on my shoulder.

It was a lifetime ago since I had a woman ride with me.

Pure magic after solitary ages.

It felt good to quit chasing fences.

 

Taylor spilled out her life over coffee.

Bad habits became a lifestyle,

hotel living, a step ahead of the marshals.

Being stripped of freedom.

Nineteen months of state time for doctoring cell phones and computers for a meth ring.

Detoxing on a cell floor.

Lock downs and 6AM counts.

The joys of having your cell tossed.

From so many shades to one eyeliner.

Longing for a pillow to put your head on.

A life with no comfort.

Stripped of your name,

given a number: PB7423.

Plenty of time to reflect,

learning to live in your lane,

and never wanting to wear brown again.

Her HP shone down on her

as she found her way.

With nothing left, she climbed out of who she was.

Clean and sober, and a walking-talking miracle.

Lying in bed,

she surveys the evidence of my life over the limit.

Ugly scars, bones that don’t line up.

So why do you do it?

I shrug my shoulders and look into her eyes.

I wanted to tell her everything,

but didn’t want to screw this up.

Her body presses up against mine, her lips touch mine gentle.

​The magic of one on one.

She pulls the sheets up and covers herself like a lady.

Can you make me a Breve please,

and are you going to tell me what it’s like to race a motorcycle?

I try a diversion:

it's part of me I don't like to share.

​Going over the limit and risking it all just seems dumb to those who don't.

Too often I've been misunderstood or dismissed as reckless.

Having to explain myself feels like backpedaling.

I'd rather just carry it with me.

Jail does something to people.

A cold harshness leaks out from time to time,

and her words sting: am I just too sensitive?

The pause tells me I wasn’t right.

She texts back  ‘only tell you cause I love you.’

Shocked by her omission, I replied:

"And just then

the sun shone

through the clouds,

rays of her love

illuminate the sky,

the racer slows

realizing there is more

to life than just speed."

 

Michael Lawless [@electric_horseman], our 'Poet of Packed Earth', is the Flat Track Editor for TheVintagent.com, and has his own blog: Electric Horseman

The Lost Boys

My plan was simple.
Do the racer school on July 3rd to sharpen my skills,
then apply what I'd learned on July 4th at the Barbara Fritchie Classic.
But I high-sided big time at school.
Couldn't get out of bed in the morning.
In no shape to race.
My left scapula was broken.

"In order to write about life you must live it"

Taking my cues from papa Hemingway,
I decided to race three weeks later
to feel like a pro-level racer
who has to perform regardless.
Racing with painful injuries is a bad idea,
but maybe the risk would force a deeper reach?

A scapular fracture...is a bummer. [wikiradiology]
I didn't tell anyone about the break.
Nothing meds and red bulls can't fix.
My hooligan bike was too heavy for the next circuit.
The outdoor short track at Timonium Fairgrounds is 'loose',
kind of like riding in powdery snow,
'Moondust' in flat tracker speak.

Michael Lawless on his Hooligan racer Harley-Davidson: fun but heavy to haul around with a broken shoulder [Michael Lawless]
They stage us in the cattle chutes.
I heard a familiar call as Henry Wiles ripped past.
He's quick and stylish and a pro.
I was surprised to see a racer of his caliber at this pro/am event.
Henry rides like Muhammad Ali jumps rope.
We wish we looked like that, but we don't.

Henry Wiles in action: grace and pace in space. [Henry Wiles]
I ran a tight line in my heat and made the main,
but ran a wide line in the final, and
finished dead last.
Bummed with my choice, I headed to Henry's pit.
A crowd of people stood and stared, but Henry spotted me.

Do guys this handsome have relationship issues? [Henry Wiles]
"You were favoring the right - didn't that shoulder heal from last season?"
I was shocked he'd watched me, and confessed my broken scapula.
"Felt like you were having a heart attack huh?
Ya know what the good part of being a cowboy is?
We meet pretty nurses."
I finally smiled.
He looked over the crowd.
"My last woman was a nurse."

A message we can all agree on. [Henry Wiles]
He stood in front of me, a million miles away.
They love you for being exciting,
but the magic wanes
with our obsession for racing,
the constant threat of injuries,
or worse.
You cringe when she says 'be careful' as you line up.
"Ya know its over when they start to care."
They mean well but there's no room for two in my helmet.
You forget her when the lights turn green.

Felt like you were having a heart attack huh?

On the long drive home I thought of Nicole and her Latin looks.
It felt magic.
We shadow boxed over conversations and dinner.
She ran her hand through my hair saying she knew what I was
and that I would never change.
We parted as friends.
Seasons have passed since those summer nights.
Call me naive
but I didn't know handsome guys had relationship issues like mine.

Sometimes you find the right mix. Henry and Kristen. [Henry Wiles]
Henry found love with Kristen.
She understands him,
knowing he's the star on Saturday night,
but the cowboy she loves on Sunday morning.
Their love gives him strength.
Her company, a quiet place in the storm.
Married now, expecting soon,
my pal Henry is in a good place
and ready to race.

 
 

Michael Lawless [@electric_horseman], our 'Poet of Packed Earth', is the Flat Track Editor for TheVintagent.com, and has his own blog: Electric Horseman

The Man in the Chair

You never know who is going to sit in your chair.
I've been a barber my whole life.
My dad was too.
He always said the trick to a barber shop
is to keep them coming back.
You got to know your customers.
With some you talk, others you don't.
The Racer came into the shop with some guy in tow.
We asked the guy does he want a cut, but he says he’s good.
He must not have mirrors in his house.

The Racer doesn't know I follow his career.
I never bring it up.
Don't want it to get awkward.
Oh, I follow the gossip
on Facebook, and on TV.
He isn't a talker.
He only comes in before a race,
always wants to be his best.
I guess that's part of his game.

I'm all business when I give a cut.
For him, I take time to do the detail stuff.
He's a good tipper and his repeat business
tells me I get the job done.
I tilt his head forward to trim his neck,
then straighten up his sideburns.
How can this man with such an angelic face
be such a desperado on the track?
He'll bump and bang you, then push you out to the wall.
It's all fair as long as you don't knock'em down.

On the Mile, he knows when to pull the trigger.
He’ll make impossibly fast laps,
drafting past them when it matters.
His last lap antics made him a legend.
The riders shake his hand on the cool-off lap,
but you can tell they're gutted.
Trimming his brows, I look into his eyes,
and can only imagine what they have seen.

What kind of rider wins? The ruthless rider. [Bryan Smith, by Andrea Wilson]
His friend is some kind of reporter.
He asks The Racer the same questions
in different ways
but The Racer doesn't blink.
His one-word answers make it clear
he doesn't want to talk about it.
The reporter will not give up.
He's wants the dirt,
but The Racer doesn't take the bait.
I guess there is honor among thieves and desperados.

Holding up the mirror, I show him my work.
He nods his head yes, hands me the cash,
thanks me, pats my shoulder, and heads for the door.
But pauses to grab a lollipop.
He might be a beast on the track,
but there's still a kid in there.
Yeah, just another day at the shop.
"Who's next?"

 

Michael Lawless [@electric_horseman], our 'Poet of Packed Earth', is the Flat Track Editor for TheVintagent.com, and has his own blog: Electric Horseman

James Rispoli: Don't Hold Back

 'You're not only living like a rock star, you're sponsored by one.
Trendy people want selfies with you.
An army of well-wishers and autograph hounds waits outside your pit box.
Luscious umbrella girls cling to you race day.
Your British road races are televised in sports bars and pubs.
Can anyone stop you?
James Rispoli with the late Keith Flint, lead singer of the band Prodigy, who sponsored British Superbike teams [Roadracing World]

Suddenly the music is over.
You gave it your all, every race, every lap.
The Brits loved your brash American persona and flashy riding.
Podiums and popularity weren't enough.
Promises made in the dark hung you.
Too late to grab another seat.
You found yourself back in America, reflecting.
"Zero funding puts you in true mode."
Reality became a beater van and a 'leased to own' 450 single.
You bet on yourself knowing the play is different when your chips are on the table.
It's back to where it all began.
Still chasing and racing, all for passion.

James Rispoli in the British Superbike series. [Roadracing World]
James Rispoli was groomed for racing.
His father had him on the flat track by age 6,
Winning pro level road races at 16.
The first of two back to back AMA Pro SuperSport National Championships by 20.
Along the climb came two Bonneville speed records and a Wildcard ride in Moto2.

Somewhere under the rainbow...Rispoli celebrating a podium position at Meadowlands. [Steve Koletar]
At 23, James headed off to the British Superbike Championship, sponsored by 'The Prodigy.'
Solid results followed despite tough local racers, living in a new country, learning new tracks.
The politics of racing can be cruel, and lack of a ride doesn't mean lack of talent, just opportunity.
Do you need an American champion if the US market has collapsed?

James Rispoli taking air at Daytona on the 'rent to own' 450 single. [Steve Koletar]
Not one to give up, James headed back to America, to surf the rising tide of flat track.
The gamble was racing a Harley in the American Flat Track production class.
The bike had been there, but under you, she was up front.
Your professionalism shone through.
Working with the engineers to get the most from your electronics,
Adjusting your riding style to get the maximum from the machine.
Your off-track antics won hearts and minds.
No one could deny your fire.

Charisma at a standstill: a magic ingredient that cant be learned, only earned, or born with. [Steve Koletar]
What is it with the name James?
Bond, Hunt...Rispoli?
His charisma is immense.
Fans lost their minds when he beat his teammate by inches to put a Harley on the podium at Black Hills Half Mile during the Sturgis Rally.
He's not a well-behaved rider who rattles off every last sponsor name.
No sir, James ran off the podium and into the crowd spraying champagne, celebrating the moment among the Harley faithful.
The season finale at 'The Meadowlands Mile' was even crazier.
Rispoli played it safe in qualifying due to the sketchy track conditions.
His team worried over his back-row results.
'No worries, I'll be up front soon,' James smiled.
His back-row charge was electrifying, battling to the front in the opening laps brought the fans to their feet.
A solid third place finish.

What did he say? Winning hearts and minds with a few choice words. [Steve Koletar]
On the podium, his colorful comments shocked the female commentator,
But were met with thunderous applause.
There is more to being a professional racer than winning.
You must have the skills to win, but personality wins fans.

Don't hold back. [Steve Koletar]
The fast laps are the best part.
Dreams come true when you spray champagne from the podium.
The mornings after seem empty.
It's hard to go back to basic after being epic.
You're forever chasing the glow of those moments.
Dealing with middle managers - the frustration and heartbreak.
Its a hard game emotionally with endless financial struggles.
We race for love, but we all gotta eat.
You know, those who can, do, those who can't, manage or write about it.

James Rispoli telling it like it is. [Jodi Johnson]
James' advice?
Be honest, be yourself, and don't hold back.

 

 

Michael Lawless [@electric_horseman], our 'Poet of Packed Earth', is the Flat Track Editor for TheVintagent.com, and has his own blog: Electric Horseman

The Greatest Show on Dirt!

Do you ever feel dead inside?
Droning thru the workaday can feel like a waste of what could be.
Trolling down back roads and blue highways isn't enough.
Can't sit in the grandstands any longer.
Having gone over the limit, there's no going back.
I miss my  Super Hooligan days.
Super Hooligan racing is tight! [Justin George]
There is nothing like grabbing a snarling V-twin by the tail.
The big street bike turned Super Hooligan racer dances all over the dirt, way out of control, And I'm riding on reflexes.
Nothing like slapping the bull to remind you that you're alive.
Wrestling the beast on a short track is like doing aerial acrobatics with a Boeing 747.
All that weight takes a deft touch, because if she gets away from you, she ain't coming back.
It's about as much fun as you can have with your helmet on.
Sideshow races include atypical vehicles and riders, and often kids with e-bikes! [Justin George]
Roland Sands lit the fuse with his bunch of merry pranksters
And it turned into a phenomenon.
Super Hooligan events are pure mayhem.
Billed as 'The Greatest Show on Dirt'.
Super Hooligan Racing is a national series where flat track meets rock & roll.
Always outrageous and out of control - you won't forget your good time.
And you never know who you'll see racing, or playing onstage.
You owe yourself: check it out if you haven't.
Professionals mix with anything goes. [Mr. Pixelhead]
Hooligan racing is a garage sport.
One must buy a bike to build a racer.
More than marketing, it takes dedication.
Enjoy the free-spirited vibe hanging out in the hooligan pits.
You'll feel like the badass you've always wanted to be when you pull onto the track.
These are the high water mark days.
Wrenching, road trips & racing, it's all good.
Hooligan is carefree.
Hooligan series founder Roland Sands has a heart-to-heart with a racer. [Bad Beard]
Whenever I've raced Hooligan, I walk away thinking 'that was Epic!'
Race promoters have noticed too.
They'll tell you it's helped bring in a ton of new, younger blood to the sport.
Even local flat track events have a Hooligan class now.
It's a good way to try flat track racing on the cheap.
It's a packed field sometimes, and a short track, but it makes for fun racing. [Justin George]
For me, the true spirit of Hooligan is racing your daily rider.
They're air-cooled 750cc or bigger, dual shock, stock-framed street bikes.
Heck, I rode mine to and from work, number plates and all.
Just bolted on the front brake lever and lights to go home,
Didn't bother to replace the instrument cluster.
That bike and I went through so much together.
It's more about the experience than winning.
In fact, if you brag about your win, you can pick up the bar tab....for everybody.
Hope to seeya out there.
The sideshow electric minibike racing is fun too. [Cycle Dump]
It's not as much fun to watch the circus once you have been in the circus...and Roland Sands IS the circus. [Mister Pixelhead]

 

 

Michael Lawless [@electric_horseman], our 'Poet of Packed Earth', is the Flat Track Editor for TheVintagent.com, and has his own blog: Electric Horseman

The Temptation

Sometimes you just can't say no.

"You want to take her out in last practice?"

More than life itself.

Friend and fellow racer Dave Evans is my enabler.

He knows there is nothing worse than being at a racetrack without a ride.

I have not been on a 450 in over a year.

"She's a motocrosser turned flat tracker. An animal of questionable breeding." [Steve Koletar]
She's a motocrosser turned flat tracker.

An animal of questionable breeding, and an unforgiving high-strung bitch.

You don't grab a fist full of anything or she'll slam your ass to the ground.

The slightest input changes her attitude.

Sixty horsepower and two hundred twenty pounds dry.

You're either in attack mode or off the throttle.

Its an alien experience after riding a 550-pound street bike.

Believe it or not, a 450 single is way harder to ride than a big twin.

I sold mine because I knew she'd send me to Orthopedic again.

Running my local short tracks isn't fun unless you can steer with the rear.

For me, the hardest part is changing direction abruptly.

What's a short track?

A very small, unforgiving oval track lined with walls to catch your mistakes.

A bullring, and no place for fools.

On a loose short track, a 450 wants to go anywhere but forward.

Luckily for me, the New Egypt track in New Jersey is a 5/8 mile oval billed as 'The Fastest Dirt Track in the East'.

Its about as beautiful as a big dirt oval gets.

"It's pure madness going fast on a bike I barely know, but so intoxicating." [Steve Koletar]
I find it much easier to go fast on the big tracks.

The corners are sweeping and you can get away with 'two-wheeling' her around. Plenty of room to gather her up if you swing wide before hitting something solid.

Oh the temptation.  I can't say no.

There's a window of opportunity as the track is prepped, when they water and grade the surface.

Oh the madness.

I jog back to the truck, get into my leathers and boots, grab my helmet and steel shoe, and jog back to the pits on the other side of the track.

I'm slightly out of breath but high on the promise.

Panic sets in as they announce 'Last Call!'

Dave kicks her to life and hands her over.

I am NOT signed up to race.

This is a big 'No-No' on many levels.

Still I hear her calling my name.

I don't belong in the Open Expert class either.

It's no country for old men.

Dave Evans and Nick Henderson. [Michael Lawless]
Nick Henderson is already there in staging.

Handsome and way fast, he is an amateur in name only, packing pro-level skills.

He is the nicest cold-blooded killer you'll ever meet.

If that wasn't enough, Dan Bromley pulls up on the Indian FTR750 that he will be racing in Super Twins next year!

Yes, the Bromley who won the 2018 American Flat Track Singles Championship.

Only three of us heading out for this last, quick session.

Oddly, I feel completely at peace with myself.

I know I'm on the path that God chose for me.

Its a Nietzche moment*.

"I know I'm on the right track." [Steve Koletar]
The track marshal looks at me dubiously while waving us forward.

We all drop the hammer.

Second gear, the front wheel come off the ground under glorious acceleration.

They're gone by the time I hit the back straight.

I enter three easy with my eye on getting good drive thru 4 and onto the front straight.

The track is D-shaped, so the front straight is really a long sweeping left, it heads gently uphill out of turn four and slowly arches down into turn one.

On this 'dry-slick' track you gotta be on the meat of the tire or she'll spit ya.

She squirts forward under hard acceleration out of four, emitting the hard mechanical sound of power.

You feel it as your neck muscles flex.

Your body coils like a spring as you keep her pointed, while drifting slightly sideways up toward the ugly metal guard rails that line the outside of the front straight, and diving back into turn one.

[Steve Koletar]
It's pure madness going fast on a bike I barely know, but so intoxicating.

Out of turn two and onto the back straight.

The rush of acceleration while dancing on the edge of traction is euphoric.

Loud and heavy like the line between joy and pain.

I'm walking the line.

I forget everything else in life when I'm going fast.

It's better than any drug I've ever had.

For me, racing is like dancing.

Its about hitting your marks time after time.

Sometimes I feel like I'm watching someone else go through the motions.

Brake here, accelerator there, the laps blur by.

She might be out of my league but we had fun.

I didn't end up face-down on the track, and somehow I didn't get lapped.

Like a hot mess, I blow the exit getting off the track, and execute a perfect 270 degree U-turn.

It's all high fives back in Dave's pit.

For the rest of the night, I'm walking on air.

I got away with a taste, without taking it too far.

 

*"The true man wants two things: danger and play."  Friedrich Nietzsche

Michael Lawless, our 'Poet of Packed Earth', is the Flat Track Editor for TheVintagent.com, and has his own blog: Electric Horseman

 


Through Jodi's Eyes

It's the hardest role in racing.
We kiss 'em goodbye and head off to race the devil, chasing fences.
She stands in the pits and wonders how her night will end.
Will she romantically pull off his champagne-soaked leathers?
Or wait in some hospital praying to God that a trauma Doc can breathe life into him.
Bad too: endless silence on the 12-hour ride home if he doesn't make 'the main'.
The life of a racer can be hard, but it's harder yet for those who love us.

Jake Johnson #5. [Jodi Johnson]
I first saw Jodi Johnson walking thru the pits, carrying a professional camera.
I thought she was media, but learned she's married to Jake Johnson,
a legend who's won two Grand National Championships.
Jodi is the nicest 'cool kid' you'll ever meet.
Always has a minute and a kind word.
I've watched her blossom into a fine mom too.
I'm proud of her like she's one of mine.
Early on I compliment her photos.
In kindness, she offered their use.
So the door was open.

Chad Cose, the Cali Kid, #49. [Jodi Johnson]
Jodi captures life in the American Flat Track pits.
She has a knack with brooding racers, in the moments before they head off to battle.
My professional artist friends call her work 'glorious' and 'breathtaking'.
She laughed when I asked if she considers herself an artist.
Maybe that's what makes her so noble.
Photos have been a lifetime love.
Her skills come intuitively,
And racing was part of growing up with a brother who competes.
At fourteen she met her future husband at the track.
At seventeen she asked Jake to her Junior Prom.
They were married in 2011 and now have a daughter named Emily.
She started photographing the track scene so friends and family could feel they were there.
Her photos tell a story, and friends could live it through her lens.
She hopes people will cherish her photos someday.
I was humbled by her mindfulness.

Max Whale #18, who is in fact 18 years old. [Jodi Johnson]
A while back, in the midst of  loss and turmoil, I wrote "Will the Rain Never Stop"
It was a special piece, but I did not have photos.
Remembering Jodi's kind offer, my story is illuminated by her work.
For me, the story was a triumph.
It's the best work I had ever done,
Thanks to the help from my friend Jodi.

Estenson Racing [Jodi Johnson]
Ryan Wells #94, as badass as he looks.  [Jodi Johnson]
Charlie Vanderlan and Oliver Brindley [Jodi Johnson]
Shayna Texter. [Jodi Johnson]
Barry Smith and Stevie Addison of the JR Addison team. [Jodi Johnson]
Jake Johnson #5, Jodi's husband. [Jodi Johnson]
Seconds after Briar Bauman won the Championship. [Jodi Johnson]
JR Addison [Jodi Johnson]
Jarod Vanderkooi #17 [Jodi Johnson]
Jake Johnson #5. [Jodi Johnson]
Jake Johnson #5. [Jodi Johnson]
Briar Bauman #14. [Jodi Johnson]
Brad Baker #1 [Jodi Johnson]

The lady herself: Jodi Johnson.

 

Michael Lawless, our 'Poet of Packed Earth', is the Flat Track Editor for TheVintagent.com, and has his own blog: Electric Horseman

Will the Rain Never Stop?

There are faces I won't see in the pits anymore.
Some are gone forever.
I don't think about the wreck that took them,
but about the wreckage left behind.
Would they want me to stop?

Cory Texler, #65. [Jodi Johnson]
Olive keeps hounding me.
Daddy, you keep breaking bones.
Why won't you stop?
My ex coyly asks if she's still on my life insurance plan.
I appreciate her humor.
Death is easy,
but being paralyzed or badly broken is not.
All I know is, I walk taller after a race.

Cali Kid, #49. [Jodi Johnson]
Racing is always somewhere in my mind.
It's my feel-good time.
The reward for getting my work done.
When I'm racing, all I can focus on, is what's going on,
The pain of life is washed away with speed.

Briar Bauman, #14. [Jodi Johnson]
There's no relief at the day job.
Why you need Saturday off?
We need you on the floor.
If you get hurt don't come back.
They're not smiling.

Jake, #5. [Jodi Johnson]
I try to find it on the track,
but there's too much rain in my head.
They show me they mean business
by being heavy and not showing.
I don't want them to see
if it goes wrong anyway.
I'm not blind, but it's what I am.
Sitting in the stands doesn't work for me.
I live for the green flag.
Peace comes when I drop the clutch.

Brandon Robinson, #44. [Jodi Johnson]
I can't get the 'if you fall and get hurt' vibe out of my head.
It's just a fast street ride now.
It's cold and lonely running second.
No traffic to heat it up.
Cold and uncompetitive is humbling.

Shawn Baer, #2. [Jodi Johnson]
I reflect in my black coffee.
I talk to him but he doesn't answer.
The line between feels good
and what's right is blurred.
Walking the line brings clarity.
Those are the times I carry with me.
The others were forgettable....

Thank you to Jodi Johnson for the use of her amazing photography.

 

Michael Lawless [@electric_horseman], our 'Poet of Packed Earth', is the Flat Track Editor for TheVintagent.com, and has his own blog: Electric Horseman

The Coal Miner's Son

The Darkness was absolute.
The silence overwhelming.
Breathing cold air, moist and heavy.
My senses were overrun
like being on the Moon.

A man in a hole. The rough walls of the family mine were not created for aesthetics, or any other eyes to see but the miners. [Steve Koletar]
Hundreds of feet under ground,
Hunched forward squeezing down the tight triangular tunnel,
braced with rough timber, this shaft runs more than 1,500 feet into shadow.
My mother told me she didn't want to be buried underground.
Panic won't change a thing
just keep moving
further into darkness.
Courage is action in the face of fear.

Surprisingly rough timbers seem impossibly frail against the weight of a mountain. [Steve Koletar]
After the blackness, the light on the surface is overpowering.
Jordan Harris bumps his flat track racer to life,
roaring through the gears, banging off the rev limiter at end of the straights,
drifting through the turns,
reveling in the freedom that motorcycles bring.
The contrast could not be greater.

At one entrance of the mineshaft, a steep incline and repurposed steel greet you: there's hardly a need for a 'keep out' sign - who would enter unless one labored below, as Jordan Harris does? [Steve Koletar]
There is no doorway to the mine.
You climb into a metal cart that's on a steep incline:
slip or fall and you'll tumble hundreds of feet down the main shaft.
There are no nets or reset buttons here.
The descent was unnerving.
Jordan yelled in a happy-go-lucky voice;
"Michael! Keep your hands in or they'll be crushed off!"
We finally stop and get out.
I fumble for the light on my helmet.

Yes, that's a crate of dynamite. Surprisingly stable and safe, in most circumstances. [Steve Koletar]
Jordan Harris walks off, whimsically singing 'Friends in Low Places'.
I'm aware of every step I take, searching for my 'pitch legs.'
He explains mining operations - pitch, gravity and blasting.
Yes blasting, how many jobs can you name with dynamite in daily use?
Jordan tells us to watch out for the chutes.
They seem bottomless in the dim light.

Miss the 'chute' off to the right at your peril. [Steve Koletar]
We finally reach the man-way and start upward.
It's a narrow, near-vertical climb on a wet, crude, handmade wooden ladder
that feels like it goes up forever.
Water runs past us,
our backs hit the wall behind us as we climb.

The sledge on the way down, lowered by a motorized cable, operated from above at the engine shed. [Steve Koletar]
As I reach the next plateau, I look back down to see how my friend, photographer Steve Koletar is doing.
Weighted down by his cameras, it's slow moving, one step at a time.
Suddenly his left hand swings loose.
I think 'Oh No!'
He reaches back and grabs one of his cameras.
I am blinded by the strobe, as he fires off a series of shots.
A consummate professional at work.
His grunts and chuckles tells me he's enjoying the madness.

The ladder in the man-way: wet and black with coal dust, with narrow boards and little foothold. 'The madness', as photographer Steve Koletar said.

Jordan Harris grew up around coal.
He entered the mines at seventeen.
Once got a job up top, but couldn't deal with the bullshit.
Six months later he returned to the family mine.
You are a self-made man here, living and dying with the price of coal.
Not worried about the future,
laughing that "its going to take a lot of coal to power all those electric cars.'

'It'll take a lot of coal to power all those electric cars." [Steve Koletar]
He talks about how there were hundreds of privately-owned mines but now there are just a handful due to MSHA.
The miners are pushed hard by the government,
and joke it would be easier to sell drugs than earn an honest living.
The fines and punishment would be less too.

He cleans up well: Jordan Harris on his Pro Twins racer. [Steve Koletar]
Motorcycles, strip pits, beer & blowing shit up.
It's all part of growing up in mining country.
His dad got him riding as a boy.
Racing MX at six, ovals by eleven.
At fourteen, he was hit by a truck when he was riding a berm on the edge of the road,
his badly broken right leg require ten surgeries to correct.

Night racing under the lights. Always working in the dark? Almost. [Steve Koletar]
Later in teen years, summer weeks were spent riding at the Texter's farm.
Central Pennsylvania is a flat track talent mine.
Jordan now rides for RRCF Racing in Production Twins class.
He married his high school sweetheart Whitney, and now they have a daughter, Everlee.

An amiable sort, with a smile that lights up a coal mine: Jordan Harris between heats on race day. [Steve Koletar]
The Springfield Mile is one of the premier events of the season.
With TV cameras rolling, he gets introduced to the crowd.
The warm up lap burns off some of the anxiety.
Focus on being calm, blipping the throttle, lights go Green.
Hole shot! It's the start he prayed for.
Now its about hitting his marks perfectly.
Just 'two-wheeling', flat track slang for keeping your wheels inline.

Just two-wheeling on the Springfield Mile. [Steve Koletar]
The Mile looks simple from above, but it's a complicated game.
Its all about getting the drive onto the straight to attain and maintain top speed.
Drafting is critical.
The entry into the turns will take your breath away, lap after lap.
Harris must remind himself to breathe or else he will tire too early.
All is going perfectly until he hears the sound of engines getting closer.
Jordon is doing everything he can to be perfect.
Still two riders beat him home.
Gutted but smiling, he stands on the podium in 3rd.
They wonder why he did not keep his pace.
It's not until weeks later we learn from the engine builder Roy Miller, that the motor was close to dropping a valve. He writes it off to God's will.

A sign in the engine shed holds advice for miners and riders alike. [Steve Koletar]
(Want to get ahead of the next fitness craze?
The cold temperatures of the mine are perfect for a total body workout.
Swinging a pick, shoveling, and endless climbing.
Add the dark and silence for meditation: mining could satisfy your physical & spiritual needs.)

 

Michael Lawless [@electric_horseman], our 'Poet of Packed Earth', is the Flat Track Editor for TheVintagent.com, and has his own blog: Electric Horseman

Words with the King

What's it take to give a good interview?”
"Bravery" I replied.
The young racer seemed confused.
Let me explain.
"You’ll take just as much of a beating entering turn one
too fast, as saying the wrong thing to the press."
Not every racer wants to risk it.
Some have too much on their plate as it is.
Or maybe they're scared about what people might think.
I dunno...
My job is to dig for a story that goes with the pictures.
You know, like in that Jamey Johnson song 'In Color.' 
No one knows what it's like until we capture the words.
Just like the Wild West: people remember a good story.
Their lives would be dust in the wind if we didn't write them down.

The King of Peoria, after 14 straight wins, in a pensive mood. [Steve Koletar]
The young racer says I seem to favor Henry Wiles a lot.
Well he trusts me.
He ain't afraid either.

Entertainer? Yes. Athlete? Absolutely. The control demonstrated here - broadsliding his Indian with a wide open throttle - is a requirement of winning races. [Steve Koletar]
Nothing like fumbling in the dark for your buzzing cell phone.
I knocked over half the stuff on my nightstand.
"Sorry, to call ya back so late Michael."
There was a rhythmic clanking noise in the background.
His breathing was very controlled.
He exhaled after he answered each of my questions.
Where are you calling from?
Henry Wiles squeezed out,
"I'm at the gym.
Daytona is only a few months away.
You know, working all day is no excuse in my book.
Ya gotta want it to get it:
I know my dream requires sacrifice."

Michael Lawless doesn't seem too bothered by late-night phone interviews with Henry Wiles. [Steve Koletar]
Another glimpse behind the curtain came
at the press room at Daytona post race.
A lot of journalists were there to
question the three riders who finished on the podium.
The mainstream writers
expected that wild biker image.
Daytona is known for its night life after all.
They asked Wiles, "heading downtown to blow off steam on Main Street?"
Thinking he paused,
'Well...I was thinking about getting some fried food.
I haven't had any for six months'.
The mainstream journalists seemed confused.
Us flat track journos looked down at our notepads and smirked.
This was classic Henry.

Elemental. loud, and fast. Henry Wiles shows how it's done. [Steve Koletar]
Wiles later laughed telling me
“we might be racers but really we're entertainers.”
That "It's not easy or everybody would do it."
How you’ve got be dedicated and motivated.
Half-assing won't cut it at this level.
Got to be fit and be ready.
Look at some of the new guys in the class-do they look in shape?
That's why they get hurt.
They get tired and make mistakes.
They are reaching for something that ain't there.
You got to give it your all or just go home.
Wiles pulls his helmet down and spins up the starter.
The bike burst to life.
He grabs the bars and throws a leg over,
drops the clutch and takes off.
Practice.

Did we also mention - Henry Wiles is ridiculously handsome? But you already noticed that.  Sometimes talent and dedication come in attractive packaging. [Steve Koletar]

 

Michael Lawless [@electric_horseman], our 'Poet of Packed Earth', is the Flat Track Editor for TheVintagent.com, and has his own blog: Electric Horseman

What the Racer Fears

It's every professional racers' worst nightmare.
You finally sit down in your skinny-ass seat for a six-hour flight to tomorrow's race.
It's the usual pandemonium as the passengers elbow their way on board.
Flying brings out the worst in people.
You look up the aisle to see a reporter who's been hounding you for an interview.
East Rutherford, NJ - October 6, 2018 - American Flat Track At Meadowlands Racing and Entertainment [Brandon Robinson]
He spots you before you can fake sleep or look away.
'Hey, it's Brandon Robinson!
This is perfect, we can talk on the flight.'
You consider hiding in the rest room, wondering ‘is there no justice?’
Is it not bad enough we're treated like cattle going through the airport,
taking off my belt and boots for what?
After struggling through the work day, rushing through traffic,
dealing with pushy people and endless lines and now this?'
Realizing you're trapped, you give in.
'Where you coming from?'
Um...work.
'Oh, I though you were a full-time professional racer.
So what's your day job?'
You slowly exhale.
Springfield, Illinois - September 1-2, 2018 - American Flat Track at Illinois State Fairgrounds [Brandon Robinson]
Like most of us in and around flat track racing, Brandon has a dual life.
He works weekdays to live the dream on weekends.
Not many earn enough to race only.
His day job is assistant physical therapist.
You deal with motorcycle accident injuries too - do you tell them you're a racer?
'Not really, like if someone asked what I did over the weekend l would say I was riding with friends, but that about it.'
'Speaking of motorcycle injures, tell me about the wreck you had in 2009.'
The look on his face told me he was surprised I knew.
Pointed here, sliding there - the essence of flat-track style. [Brandon Robinson]
When we head to a race track there's the promise of becoming a day we won't forget.
More so when it's somewhere mythical like the 'Indy Mile'.
Stepping onto the track surface is walking on hallowed ground.
Robinson tells me everything was going well until the rider in front of him crashed at the end of the front straight.
Brandon collided with the bike on the ground, got out of shape, hit and bounced off the air fence,
his body slammed into a telephone pole then ricocheted over the top of the track fence.
His twisted body crashed to earth on a lonely access road outside the track.
A witness said she thought she watched him die that day.
Fort Worth, TX – April 28, 2018 – American Flat Track at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth, TX. [Scott Hunter/American Flat Track]
The road to recovery was long.
Doing even the simplest things took help from others.
Brandon was riding within months but admits 'it took two years to get back to where I was'.
Since then, I've watched Robinson almost win the 'Sacramento Mile' on an overweight Triumph
and even beat the mighty Bryan Smith at the 'Springfield Mile'.
His hard work was rewarded with an offer to ride for Harley Davidson.
It's every flat track kid's dream.
But the factory was struggling those years, developing a new machine.
The frustration.
The non-racing 'experts' started questioning - had he passed his sell-by date?
SEPTEMBER 03, 2017 - American Flat Track at the Illinois State Fairgrounds in Springfield, IL. [AFT]
Redemption came when he switched to a privateer team, and won two races in 2019.
The life of a racer is ever-changing and never-perfect.
After the glow of victory, crashes and injuries followed.
Then darkness came as the privateer team folded.
Brandon favors loyalty and is not one to burn bridges.
Harley-Davidson asked him back for the final two rounds.
As the dust settles on this season, he looks forward to rising over the beatings he took this year.
The promise of next season is on the horizon.
For Brandon, the ROI of racing is happiness.

 

Michael Lawless [@electric_horseman], our 'Poet of Packed Earth', is the Flat Track Editor for TheVintagent.com, and has his own blog: Electric Horseman

The Privateer Struggles

How could this be? I stood slack-jawed watching Davis Fisher toss around an Indian FTR750 like a play bike in his backyard. This bumpy New Hampshire short track was not for the faint of heart, you had to steer with the rear as you hopped thru the ruts. Push too hard and get slammed to the ground - or worse, not enough and get left behind. It was a study in controlled aggression.

Davis Fisher, a study in calm at speed. [Steve Koletar]
People outside our sport don't get it. You can't force her, as 'too much' will get you hurt. It's about finger tips and toes at this pace. A calm mind and a deft touch.

Davis Fisher and his #1 (Makenna) with his Indian FT750 flat track racer. [Steve Koletar]
Davis Fisher is a paradox. The male fans are surprised by his soft spoken humbleness. Female fans are smitten by his bashful, boyish charms. How could this gentle soul be such a charger on the track? The paradox in personality boggles the mind.

Would this man stomp all over you in a race? Well, yes. [Steve Koletar]
Sometimes, being media, I remember things others forget. At Daytona's season kickoff, Fisher was looking fast until he crashed out of the semi, breaking his back. Without harping on bad luck or pain, and grateful not to be paralyzed, he quietly got himself together, methodically working his training program to get back in the game.

The FT750 is the machine of choice in American flat track racing today, although racers need an edge, so install the engine in different chassis. [Steve Koletar]
People outside the circle don't know the sweat and tears it takes to be a professional motorcycle racer. While fans motivate you race day, they aren't there with you in the gym. We are driven by the dream of racing. For the hardcore, it's a thin line between joy and pain. Racing makes us feel alive again. It gives us purpose.  We are not just another guy sitting in a cubicle.

Not just another guy in a cubicle, but it's still work. [Steve Koletar]
And after dealing with all this rough stuff, Davis Fisher remain as racy as ever. Even after bittersweet fallout from the Rapid City incident. The struggles with sponsorship. Coming back from injury. His epic ride to 3rd at the Sacramento Mile. Davis stays focused on his dream. Regardless of the chatter bumps racing throws at him. He just flashes me 'that smile' and keeps rolling on.

When something breaks, and you're the mechanic, it sucks. [Steve Koletar]
Changing rules in American Flat Track have limited the number of entries in Premier class, which could force Fisher out of racing. I know he'll do whatever it takes to stay in the show. It would be a real shame if Davis Fisher drifted away.

 

Michael Lawless [@electric_horseman], our 'Poet of Packed Earth', is the Flat Track Editor for TheVintagent.com, and has his own blog: Electric Horseman

By Any Means Necessary

She's got all the subtlety of a sawed-off shotgun.
Yeah, nothing says American badass like a Pro Twins bike.
Ya gotta be a fast hombre to make 'The Main' at a National.
It means you're one of the elite sixteen.
The moments before 'The Main' always humble him.
Bright lights, TV cameras, and packed grandstands will do that.
He says he feels numb before the start,
that he is just cruising on autopilot until the ten-second board goes up.
James Monaco had dreamt of this moment since he was a kid,
now he is lining up with the best flat track racers in the world,
some of whose posters, like Bugs Pearson & Jake Johnson,
still grace his bedroom walls.

James Monaco down to it. [Tom Stein]
Heading out onto the warm-up lap,
he feels the electricity surging through his veins.
James is back on the third row but fortunate to be gridded on the groove.
He does slow pulls on the throttle before the start,
thinking back to those people who said he couldn't.
Of all the long nights on lonely highways traveling,
the sacrifice and suffering for his dream,
the girlfriends who got tired of waiting.
A calm aggression comes over him as he watches the flagman.
The lights go green and all hell breaks loose.
The sound and fury,
the pack of the sixteen motorcycles charges toward the first corner.
Some of those not lucky to be on the groove,
spin up and slide down the banking,
they're just on for the smoke show.
Through the dust and madness,
James surges forward and latches onto Bronson's rear wheel.
He is off to a great start.
The roaring engine set the rhythm in this dance that is 'The Main'.
James tells me 'you gotta go slow to go fast here.'
How 'you gotta chase it to find it.'
That sometimes 'the biggest thing you can change is how you ride her.'

"The biggest thing you can change is how you ride her." [James Monaco]
There is little money or glamour in the life of a privateer racer.
At home, he has no internet or television - just a coffee pot.
After being a rockstar cowboy on Saturday night, on Monday mornings
he is just a guy changing swimming pool filters
or helping out at the farm.

James Monaco with his extensive, factory-supplied development team, flown in every weekend in helicopters: one of the many lavish bonuses thrown at flat track racers. [James Monaco]
James is on his knees changing gearing,
as if praying to the gods of speed.
It's after qualifying and as he works,
he tells me that he didn't want to bump down to singles class,
how he dreamt his whole life to race the premier twins class.
Realizing there are only so many factory seats and motorcycle industry sponsorships,
he reached out of the box to find sponsorship help from the agricultural
industry, to a company named 'Pure Crop'.
Which makes a natural plant-based biostimulant, insecticide and fungicide made
of food grade oil with zero OSHA rating, that is safe for children and pets.
James is a fourth generation almond farmer aware of what Pure Crop does.
I give James credit for chasing down a unique sponsor
to keep his dream alive. James knows he might not ever get rich racing but
he's living a life others only dream of.

James Monaco is chasing his dreams. [James Monaco]

 

Michael Lawless [@electric_horseman], our 'Poet of Packed Earth', is the Flat Track Editor for TheVintagent.com, and has his own blog: Electric Horseman

Hooligan Racing: Gateway Drug to Flat Track

It's hard to get started in off-road motorsports unless you've grown up around them. What's an urban cowboy to do? Motorcycle dealerships don't sell race-ready flat trackers.  When I queried, a used 450cc race bike was recommended as a starting platform. Several racers offer to sell me their old machines ($4-6k range). The upside was 'ready to race!', while the reality was 'ridden hard and put away wet'.  Another path is building your own racer from a new 450cc motocross bike (about $15k) . Either way seemed an expensive gamble - what if I didn't like racing, or couldn't hang?

I took the quick and easy path. In the 1930s, riders simply removed the lights from their street bikes to go racing. Why not buy a 400cc dual-purpose motorcycle? I could try flat track racing, and if I didn't like it, I could always use this as my street bike.

I asked advice from Patrick, who races dual sport events; surprisingly, he felt a Kawasaki KLX250s would be a great choice.  "It's lighter, almost as fast as a 450cc, and handles well." I found a clean, low-mileage KLX on Craigslist. The seller bragged about the bike's torque - I tried not to roll my eyes. But he was right; the Kawasaki was delightful on everything shy of Interstates. Its light handling matched well with the surprising torque of its 250cc single-cylinder engine. I had a ball cutting through traffic on the way to work, and the fun little KLX reminded me why I got involved with motorcycles in the first place. To get her ready for racing, I ordered a lowering link for the rear suspension and more appropriate tires.

I'm lucky to have the ear of one of the fast guys of American Flat Track Racing, so I stopped by Jake Shoemakers' place.. "Can you tell me if the suspension adjustments are correct?" He took a look at the bike and said I was crazy. We checked things out and made a few tweaks. After a short ride on his test track, he slid to a halt beside me; 'This is a fun little bike - Get On!' I thought he wanted to set the bike up for two-up street riding.

Yes, I am that dumb. I just about fell off the back when he dropped the clutch in second gear. We entered the first corner so fast, going past the apex, and as he slammed on the rear brake, the KLX snapped sideways. I was sure we were going to wreck. Who knew you could flat track with a passenger!? He put in a few quick laps two-up, faster then I could ride solo. I was humbled. Real racers are real fast.

I got up early one Saturday morning. removed the lights and other street gear, and zip-tied a front number plate. I was ready for my first race. The real racers looked at me funny, but I had a great time - and didn't finish last either. I put the street gear back on, and rode to work on Monday, still smiling from my weekend adventure. This is the spirit of Hooligan Racing.

Several weeks later, after an 11-hour workday, I climbed on my KLX to ride home as it started to rain. The rush hour traffic was heavy. When an oncoming police car charged around the corner in full siren, the car in front of me slammed on the brakes. My bike slid as I scrubbed off speed; trees to the right, nowhere to go. I clipped the left edge of the bumper and sailed over the handlebars. As I flew through the air, I saw the shocked look on the officer's face in the oncoming police car. My right arm bounced off the side of his car, and I landed heavily on my chest. I glanced off the curb, flipped through the air, and landed on my back in the weeds. The cop car ran over my KLX.

All I heard was the rain hitting leaves, and I opened my eyes to see light filtered through the trees. Did I die? The officer came running, yelling into his microphone "Yeah-I f****** ran him over - he's probably dead". I startled him by sitting up. He offered an ambulance but I said I was OK. I took off my helmet and was relieved to see my iPhone survived the impact. I called my daughter Olive, who was waiting for me at home. "I've had a problem with the bike and I'm running late. There are snacks on shelf - I'll make dinner when I get home." The Officer looked shocked that I could be so calm. I picked up my bike and surveyed the damages. Plastics trashed, radiator bent but not leaking, shifter damaged but still able to move. I called my shop. "Yeah, I'm broken down at the bottom of the hill on Conshohocken State Rd. Grab some tools - I'll need a breaker bar & large channel locks." We straightened things out by the side of the road, in the rain. The KLX is a rugged little machine; I rode it home and had dinner with Olive, glad to be alive.

Call me superstitious, but I felt I'd used my luck up on that bike. I sold the KLX and moved on to a different machine.

Roland Sands Design & Indian Motorcycles soon took Hooligan Racing to the main stage - Daytona. Through the kindness of these guys, I actually raced an Indian Scout at night under the lights at Daytona, on TV! Sometimes life is better than my wildest dreams. Hooligan race bikes were later defined as 750 cc or larger twins, stock frames and dual shocks. This democratic concept helped bring new interest and more people to the sport. The faithful cringed but the crowds love Hooligan racing, and those who tried Hooligan racing found new respect for the pros. Manufacturers of motorcycles and suppliers of aftermarket parts could see their wares being used in front of large audiences and television. Hooligan racing is an excellent gateway drug to the flat track scene.