Last weekend the quiet town of Watkins Glen, located at the southern tip of Seneca Lake, largest of New York's Finger Lakes, was invaded by a band of leather-jacketed motorcycle riders and their incredible—and also leather-jacketed—dolls. On Saturday night, the night before the 150-mile road race, many of the riders in a holiday mood, their girls perched astraddle behind them, rode restlessly up and down the street past the dining room where 28-year-old Richard Scott Mann, leader in the scramble toward the national motorcycle championship, sat gloomily waiting for his dinner.
Mann was sipping a predinner VO and ginger. His ear was cocked to the noises that sputtered into the room from outside. "Street riders," he said with a grimace, his strong, freckled hand closing a little tighter on his glass.
Mann, who is whippet-thin, red-haired and known, for no special reason, as Little Bugs, was absorbed in the thought of Sunday's challenge and Saturday's ignominy. Those street riders had come rambling to town to see a performance by him and his peers in the seventh of 13 races from which comes the national champion. They knew that he was one of the half-dozen best of the country's 300,000 or so motorcycle riders (including the 1,500 who engage in some kind of competition); that Dick Mann's special art is something like playing concert piano in a wind tunnel; that he was the not-so-Young Turk who might strip from Wisconsin's Carroll Resweber, two years his junior, the national crown Resweber had worn for four consecutive years. Mann was ahead on points. Resweber, who is even slimmer than Mann but laced with piano-wire muscle, had missed two events due to a broken hand. He stood third but had a determined man's chance to retain his title by the season's end.
The raucous street riders knew something more: like themselves, Little Bugs became a second-class citizen the moment he put on his leathers. Mann stared into his glass. "People look at us and think we're trash—maybe they don't even know why they think so, maybe they've seen street riders raising hell somewhere. They don't know that 95% of the people who ride cycles are decent people. The trouble is that the few bad ones are even worse than people think. I personally never ride on the streets anymore. You might be going along at 20 looking straight ahead and the law stops you. No reason except you're on a bike. Once in Florida, away back in the boondocks where I couldn't have bothered anybody, a cop stopped me with his gun drawn, because he thought I was going to race another rider. I spent a day in jail for that—for nothing."
Mann cut into the steak that was placed before him.
"When I ride just for pleasure," he went on, "I go up in the hills near where I live, across the Bay from San Francisco, and just fool around up there where there aren't any streets or people or police. Why, I can take a bike up some old bald hills that look so steep you wouldn't believe a horse could get up them. In a way, it's like having a neat horse, fun like that. I think almost anybody would like it."
Mann was born in Salt Lake City, the son of a working cowboy. As a youngster he was taken to Las Vegas and then to Richmond, Calif. He now lives at neighboring El Sobrante. He began riding motorcycles because he was too puny to be considered for the team sports in school. As a teen-ager he raced in minor events at nearby tracks. By 1955 he was rated an "expert," the top category of the American Motorcycle Association, and he has been among the top 10 in the national rankings since 1957, once placing second to Resweber.
"Not too many people can tell you why they race," he said. "The financial rewards are not exactly great. In an exceptional year the very best rider could earn, say, $12,000 from racing alone. Most riders have second jobs. Winters I'm a mechanic in a cycle shop. Your social position is not what you could call great, either. You do it because you do it, that's all. Joe Leonard is the greatest rider we've ever had. He is a fine auto racing driver. He finds an owner and does real well racing midgets and then just quits and comes back to riding. I know how he feels."
Mann, whose only severe injury has been a shattered knee, said he believes that motorcycle racing is not as dangerous as car racing, although riders are killed once in awhile (Bob Webster, of Toronto, died in a three-cycle smashup at Watkins). In any case, the thrill of a dangerous pursuit is evidently not the secret of his passion.
"It's a complex proposition," he said. "There's more to riding than just sitting down and going around and around. Forgetting the mechanical side of it—steering geometry, proper gear ratios, carburetion, tire pressure and so on—just consider what you do in a road race like the one here. O.K., you're going along at the Glen at 120 mph with your chin down against the gas tank to cheat the wind and you come to the chicane—a hard right, a left and a right. You don't think about what you're going to do, there isn't time; if you have to think, you're too slow.