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Falling flat on my back at the Indy flat-track

Crash Test Dummy

 

Moments before firing up Roberts' fearsome flat-tracker.

The look on the mechanic’s face in the first picture says it all: “If anything goes wrong out there, you better pray to God you don’t survive the crash.”
In fact, he had just said so in not as many words. So did A&A Racing’s Ray Abrams, and pretty much everyone else attached to Kenny Roberts’ legendary TZ750 flat-tracker at the Indiana State Fairgrounds last Saturday night. I’ve ridden plenty of outrageously expensive motorcycles, even a few that were irreplaceable, and I’ve never seen handlers worry so much before I set out on a bike.

Maybe they knew I had no business riding this particular motorcycle. They didn’t ask—and I didn’t exactly tell—but this was my first time ever on a dirt track. I hadn’t so much as lapped a backyard oval on an XR100 before, and I was about to make my dirt-track debut on what was almost universally regarded as the most unrideable race bike ever built.

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

Saddling up in front of a few hundred spectators did nothing to calm my nerves—especially since I immediately followed former AMA dirt-track, Supersport and Superbike national champion Ben Bostrom, the only other “journalist” allowed to ride the bike (he was a ringer sent by Cycle News). There was no pre-ride briefing at all—just sit down, bump start, and go. I didn’t know if the bike was standard or race shift pattern, or how many gears there were! Thank goodness I didn’t have to remember which way the track went, too.

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It took until the second of two laps before I figured out the controls and surface enough to at least somewhat pay attention to the screaming machine underneath me. Of course, it wasn’t half as terrifying as I anticipated—how could it be? Granted, I wasn’t sideways in the cushion spraying a 120-mph roost, but at my don’t-f*ck-it-up pace the TZ750 just felt like a perfectly tuned race bike. Throttle response was crisp (if a little rich), the suspension was surprisingly compliant and the bike even hooked up on the groove, thanks to much better rubber than anything Roberts rode back in the day. Even when I cracked the throttle along the back straight it didn’t snap or stand up. It just lit up and stepped out as smoothly as a traction-controlled Superbike. No doubt it’s a different animal on its side and on the pipe, but I sure as hell wasn’t going to find out.

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

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

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At least I saved my fall until after I was finished riding King Kenny’s bike.

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COMMENTS:

  1. jonbanquer
    Posted on: July 25, 2010 4:05 am

    The problem was that the two-strokes had totally different handling characteristics than the four-strokes. It wasn’t that they were unrideable – I saw Scotty Brelsford either win or finish in the top few places at Golden Gate Fields on a Kawasaki triple.He was actually better on a big two-stroke than Roberts. (Understanding why is an exercise left up to the reader :) )

    The problem was that they were really slow in the turns and really fast on the straights. On a dirt track people ride close – you’ll see most guys coming in with tire marks all over their left legs, except for Mert who likes to get out front and run away. When you get one group of bikes riding in one pattern and another in a totally different pattern, you’re asking for collisions going in and coming out. There were only a few two-strokes built at that time, it was a good idea to nip it in the bud.They didn’t make the racing any better, just a lot more dangerous and would have cost people a bunch of money to add yet another bike to the stable.

  2. klx678
    Posted on: December 24, 2009 9:30 am

    Gee, you kind of found what Randy Riggs learned when CW researched and tested Steve Baker’s TZ (one of the SIX built by Champion/Doug Schwerma, that included Roberts’bike). A whole lot of horsepower, but the bike was actually ridable.

    I was at Indy in 75 and it was awesome to see 5 TZs (mechanical and ignition woes took out three) along with 3 or 4 Kawasaki H2s – that also got banned. Don Castro ran well, but never figured out the racing line. For any rider to come from nearly a last place start, to win on the first day and first racing they did on any bike is pretty darn incredible and speaks to the ridability of the bike, regardless of the horsepower.

    Think what AMA flat track could have been if they’d given a year for development time to cushion the power delivery and allow some development. We might not be seeing the XR750 parade GN is still today.

    In the old CW article Steve Baker, the former 750 GP world champion, couldn’t understand why the ban. He saw it, as did Randy Riggs, as a premature reaction.

  3. jfenech
    Posted on: September 6, 2009 8:48 am

    This is Joe the mechanic. First off, i would never resort to violence, i would let the angry pitch fork wielding mob do that, I might however have provided the pitch forks i carry with me to the mob.

    Seriously, I want to thank you for treating that bike with the care it deserves, and for riding it in a responsible manner. I was happy that the night ended on a good note, and that a good time was had by all, and with that outcome, the bike might be availble for more rides in the future.

    If time provides, i will compose a list of things you should and should not do while wearing a steel shoe.