To a man the riders are colorful and dashing. Also, just a bit flaccid. Dick Mann, at 35 the senior rider on the circuit and the winningest with 20 national championship victories under his belt, is scarred and lean, as tough as the leathers he has worn through 17 racing seasons. But others, quicker on the cramped oval dirt courses like Louisville, Roosevelt Raceway (where 21,000 watched a bike race last month), California's Ascot raceway, or even Madison Square Garden, are a touch too fat, a hair too limp in the neck and shoulders to be convincing as real athletes. Mann is the only AMA rider who has won national championship races in all of the association's categories: dirt and short track, tourist trophy (which includes jumps), road races (50 miles or more on pavement), hill climbs and the recently imported motocross from Europe (SI, May 3).
In the Louisville prelims a few realities become evident. This is a Harley-Davidson course. The dirt causes a lot of wheelspin, and the only American motorcycle still in production seems to thrive on slippage. Though big British bikes like the Triumph, BSA and Norton succeed impressively in the semifinals, Harley finishes one-two in the 10-mile final. Dave Sehl, a shy, scrappy man from Waterdown, Ontario who now lives in Atlanta and has an Adam's apple bigger than his chin, takes the checkers and $2,200 of the $10,000 purse. Dave is only 24. Along the way Gene Romero, the champ, loses it in Turn Three and hits the fence. In a race at Louisville last year a rookie named Ken Pressgrove hit the wall in Turn One, blasted through the protective hay bales and chopped a truck-sized hole in the wall, splattering blood all over the concrete. Pressgrove was killed. Romero merely spilled, then picked up his Triumph bike and raced on to finish ninth overall, thus gaining valuable points toward his championship defense. "It was a near thing," he admitted later. Shirtless and moviestar-handsome in his garage, Romero came on like the traditional California cool kid: "Usually if you hit the fence, you waste an arm or a leg. I was damned lucky." Romero smiles—white teeth, just a touch of flab on his naked gut.
Ensenada, Mexico. Desert country, all dun and sere, a cold green sea crashing on the beach with a rocky clatter. It has been overcast for weeks down here, and as the 240 off-road racers who participate annually in the Baja 500 congregate, the invocation rises: "Here comes the sun." No such luck. One must seek other warmth in Hussong's cantina, where the tequila is sharp and stuffed birds bristle on the walls. Hussong's is a gunfighter's saloon and Ensenada a salesman's town, but during the middle of the second week in June it becomes a desert fox's delight. Last year Parnelli Jones won the 500 in a Bronco desert truck—clearing the 557 miles of loose dirt, hard rock, deep gullies and potholed straightaways in 11 hours and 55 minutes. Motorcycles used to win the Baja races outright, but now the four-wheelers have the edge. Yet this race, cycle-wise, was in good shape. For openers there was Dick Vick, 41, a fireman from San Clemente, Calif. who has been racing bikes over the long roads and the longer non-roads for 15 years. In love with the desert but badly hurt in a wreck two years ago, he had given up off-road racing—given up, that is, until he was asked to ride a Triumph 650 called "The Dirty Little Ole Man" in this Baja. It was the last race for the bike, a 1965 model that would be "put out to stud" by its owner after the run, and probably the last race for Vick. He finished in 15 hours and 10 minutes.
Then there was Frank Danielsen, 43, an excavator from West Los Angeles and among the oldest of the 36 motorcycle entries. Since Frank was riding a sidehack—a motorcycle with a platform sidecar—he had the opportunity of teaming up with the youngest rider, Pete Breum, 15�. Danielsen bought his bike from Steve McQueen, actor and sometime desert racer, for $500. Then he put $2,500 into it for his 1970 entry in the longer Baja 1,000-mile race, and finished 10th in his class. A bit of an artist—Danielsen creates junk sculptures—he decorated his bike with such slogans as HELPS RID LUNGS OF EXCESS PHLEGM. Amply supplied with Crackerjack and water, Danielsen and Breum made it all the way, and they certainly rid their own lungs of excess phlegm. "Biking is all about getting out of the cities," said Danielsen. "You can't lose if you get out and get it on."
Above all, there was a Swedish Husqvarna 400-cc. bike ridden by the two most eminent desert foxes of them all: Malcolm Smith, 30, "gentleman rider" from Riverside, Calif., and J. N. Roberts, 28, of Sun Valley, Calif. Smith is, by McQueen's estimate, "probably the best all-round rider in the country." A shy, jug-eared, wiry man with muddy eyes and a disarming smile, Smith is the last rider one would suspect of aggression on the starting line, yet he runs as if possessed. Roberts, who has won Nevada's Mint 400 off-road race, is a gritty rider with plenty of nitty.
The Baja is a test of eyes and stamina. One must read the desert—all of its ruts, all of its whims—and put up with its bruises. Downcourse from Ensenada, for instance, a rider last week ran into the leading edge of a tree. Its lowest, most aggressive branch punched a ragged hole in his cheek, but he raced on anyway—away from medical attention—figuring it was better to finish than be healed. Another rider blew a tire, ran on for many miles, changed the flat, quickly accelerated to 100 mph and flipped his bike in a pothole. Cursing, he spent 25 minutes under the machine before he could be extricated, then waited overnight in the desert, bloody but uncowed, before he could be flown back to Ensenada for treatment. By contrast, Smith and Roberts had an easy time of it. J.N. took the opening 275-mile stanza and whipped into the midway point of Papa Fernandez well ahead of the other bikes and all of the cars. ( Parnelli Jones, by the way, dropped a valve in his 1971 car and exited the Baja in the first hour.)
It was clear and crisp at Papa Fernandez when Roberts arrived, his presence signaled by a tan plume of dust and the strident whine of his engine ricocheting off the rocks and echoing over the warm, fish-rich waters of the Sea of Cort�s. Dusty, deadbeat and full of advice, he turned the bike over to Smith just as a yellow full moon rose. Running north from Papa Fernandez, where the overnighters were slugging rum to ward off the chill, Smith encountered stiff southwesterly winds. "When you jumped," he chortled later, "you landed 10 feet wide of the line you jumped from. I was riding the straight sections at a 45-degree angle into the wind." Smith slashed his way through the wind—not to mention the dry lake bed of El Diablo and the steep slopes of the Sierra San Pedro Martir—and across the finish line back in Ensenada to complete the Roberts-Smith ride in just 11:59.28, a new bike record. "If we could have started at dawn, we would have won it all," he said later, standing shy and dusty in a canvas coat and slashed boots. "Riding a bike flat out at night is almost impossible. The cars have two headlights and four wheels worth of stability. When we turn our front wheel to corner, we lose sight of the road ahead. At night we lose everything we've gained." Still, Smith and Roberts finished third overall behind two four-wheeled beasts and, of course, first among all the bikes.
"I've been in this sport now for 15 years," Smith said. "I started when I was so small that they had to hold me on the pegs until we got the start. My legs wouldn't reach the ground, but I could sure corner lower than the rest of them. It's all changing. There are so many people into it now. I kinda liked it better in the old days, when you knew everybody. Now it's just like, well, a freeway."
Ascot Park, Gardena, Calif. A track just off the freeway. The jets that put down at L.A. International Airport slide past like hawk shadows; the crowd is made up of Cub Scouts and riders' friends.
When the annual Yamaha Gold Cup Race is held next month, 15,000 will attend. Tonight, though, there are only 4,000 on hand. One of them is Robert Beck, 34, a printer from Westchester, Calif. and a motorcyclist who has two cycle-happy kids—a boy who runs a 50-cc. Wyler mini-bike in competition and a girl who just watches. "The land is being closed off by the ecologists," Beck complains. " California has opened up motorcycle parks now, places like Saddleback, which is 750 acres just back of Irvine. But the parks are too crowded, too expensive. They charge $3 for my 250-cc. Montesa and two bucks for my boy's mini-bike. Still, what can you do? The sheriff's department is patrolling the desert with helicopters. In a way you have to come to the racetracks to get your biking kicks anymore."