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