"Well, they are people, just like us—from within our own solar system. Except that their society is more highly evolved. I mean, they don't have no wars, they got no monetary system, they don't have any leaders, because, I mean, each man is a leader."
Thus spake Jack Nicholson, the whiskey lawyer of Easy Rider. Though his Utopian sentiment was intended to describe Venusians in flying saucers, it might well stand as a working definition of the motorcycle crowd. The image of that particular subculture is at once freewheeling and cool: contemptuous of big cars and of the big money it takes to buy them, calculatedly unstructured and highly individualistic. Still, the definition fails at certain levels. In point of fact, the motorcycle people do have wars—fiercely competitive ones, waged on dirt tracks and slick road courses, over mountains tall as the Bible and through swamps as dense as Vietnam. In point of fact, they do have monetary systems—including prize money that can get up to $50,000 a race and costs that may run to $9,000 per vehicle entered. Right now, to be sure, they have no truly dictatorial leaders—those czars will doubtless arise as the sport reaches higher evolutionary forms. And thus far, at least, each rider is indeed a leader unto himself.
But, all of those contradictions aside, the definition is a sound one, particularly since motorcycling, in terms of mass participation, is the most exciting new sport to arise in recent American history. In approaching the phenomenon, one must look beyond the clich�s. No sport has suffered more than motorcycling from the tendency of mankind to lump, and by lumping to reject. Like all clich�s, the ones that grew up around motorcycles have been warped and shallow. Hell's Angels with their cruel chains and obscene sex rites. The spine-rattling sound of two-cycle engines racketing down a quiet country road. Leathern bands of Wild Ones threading their effortless, contemptuous way through traffic jams that leave mere four-wheeled Americans cussing in a kind of blue, smoggy funk.
All right, so these manifestations of cyclomania do exist; they are only a glimmer on the surface. Motorcycles are here—now—and in depth. They are being ridden by a vast, complex swarm of Americans, many of whom compete in racing. Motorcycle registrations in the U.S. have risen from 1.4 million in 1967 to nearly 3 million this year. Very few of those riders are dope smokers, long-hairs or other standard freaks. They range from factory workers who feel the pinch of the recession and react by buying an inexpensive and exciting means of transportation, to old grannies in Bell helmets, to straight dads and moms in leathers who want a breath of fresh air. Ditch diggers and doctors, scholars and politicians, they all find fun—and a bit of release from the heavy weight of the society—by tripping on bikes. Motorcycling has become not only a major theme in American folklore, � la Easy Rider, but a booming varooming new sport.
Last week, for instance, the men and women, kids and grannies who follow motorcycling had their choice of some 250 separate events to watch or, more important, to enter. They ranged in place and manner from a hill climb in Seattle to a road race in Loudon, N.H. In between and all around there were scrambles in Bloomingburg, N.Y., motocross races at Elkhorn, Wis., a road run in Lone Pine, Calif., an indoor sprint in the Boston Garden. The 23 national championship races sponsored this year by the American Motorcycle Association will pay more than $1 million in prize money to some 163,000 riders. And the riding is not so easy. Gene Romero, the 23-year-old Californian who currently wears plate No. 1 as the AMA's national motorcycle champion, earned more than $60,000 last year in prize and contingency money, which is not bad pay for a man who won only three of 26 races. But Romero worked hard for that bread: he traveled 100,000 miles, stayed away from home from March to October and scraped off at least a yard of hide in the spills he took en route to the title.
But there is no way that statistics alone can tell the tune of motorcycling. One must hit the high notes—catch a two-cycle Kawasaki cutting out from a stoplight, or a Honda hitting the quick changes. Take a close look at three of last week's events, varying in scope from professional through amateur to just plain happy. The impression gained from each adds up to a representative whole.
Louisville. Horse country, all green and lithe, the colts hiking awkwardly after their graceful dams. A border country where Southern syrup mixes with Middle Western vinegar. The dark and bloody ground. It is 95� Fahrenheit in the shade, and the humidity could drown a frog. The AMA has chosen Louisville Downs, a harness track, as the site of its sixth national championship race of 1971. Plenty of riders are here—138 of them, to be precise; 76 "experts" and 62 "juniors." The biggest card of the season, the biggest names: Romero, Mann, Lawwill, Rice, Aldana, Nixon (Gary, no kin to Dick). Because this is a dirt course, light brown loam crusted over by sprinklers and a hot Kentucky sun, the riders have wrapped handguards over their bars. Many of the guards are made of cardboard. One consists of a brace of Coors six-pack cartons. As practice begins, the knobby rear tires of the bikes throw up long, slashing rooster tails of grit—stinging little clots that reach clear into the bleachers.
It smarts, but the crowd does not complain. Motorcycles wheel up to the parking lot in grumbling platoons. Figures in leather jackets and spangled helmets dismount and peel off their disguises. By gum, there stands an old woman, her teeth conveniently in her pocket. A broad-beamed man with the face of a cost accountant claps his hands and hikes off into the infield, side by side with a grinning longhair. Acres of bikes lean on their kickstands in the waning sun, backlit by an orange, ominous glow. A black couple buys some beers, then takes seats amid the reddest-neck group in the stands. They exchange enthusiasms over the riders. One begins to think, absurdly, that motorcycling may be the glue of the future society.
There are the shaggy members of motorcycle clubs—Saints from Tennessee, Vigilantes from Indianapolis in their cut-down Levi jackets with pins reading I'LL DRINK TO THAT; Vikings wearing that almost forgotten slogan: DEATH BEFORE DISHONOR; Road Rangers, Soul Seekers, Silver Wheels, the Aeolus Motorcycle Club of Cincinnati in American-flagged red leather vests with a cool legend which said GOD OF THE WINDS.
Because this crowd contains participants as well as spectators, one sees the walking wounded everywhere. There are broken thumbs, broken handbones, wristbones, armbones, shoulderbones, neckbones—now hear the word of the Lord. But there are no fights.