Last Tuesday the Associated Press moved an item about four scientific researchers who believe that the secret to safer crash helmets can be found by studying woodpeckers. The scientists said that woodpeckers pound their beaks against trees whenever they're hungry or nervous—which covers most of the time they aren't sleeping—and seem none the sillier for the bashing. That story was given prominent display on page one of the Daytona Beach Journal sports section, since all week long dozens of motorcycle riders had been bouncing their heads off the pavement of the Daytona International Speedway and had survived, seemingly no more dingy than before. The implication was that maybe the scientists should come to motorcycle speedweek next year and take a look at the bike riders instead of chasing through the woods observing woodpeckers.
There certainly would be ample opportunity to study the species. This year the speedweek's top event, the 200-mile expert road race, drew 138 entries—57 of them from 18 foreign countries—attempting to qualify for the 80 starting positions. Motorcycles have been racing at Daytona for 35 years—until 1959 on the beach—but the 200 has only earned its reputation as the world's most prestigious motorcycle race in the last few years. Today it is motorcycling's Indy. It pays more than any other American Motorcycle Association championship race ($65,000), attracts the largest crowd in the U.S. (an estimated 60,000 although, like Indy, attendance figures are never released) and is the first round in the International Formula 750 Championship season.
All through the week a fleet of charter planes had been landing right next to the Speedway at Daytona Beach Regional Airport bringing in European and Japanese fans. One plane, a Boeing 747 from Amsterdam, was the first jumbo jet ever to touch down on the relatively short 7,500-foot runway. It was so inspiring an occasion that 5,000 natives turned out, picnic lunches in hand, to watch the big plane arrive. "When we get off the plane we see all the people cheering and we are astounded," said one Dutch passenger. "We think how nice Americans are to greet us."
Throughout motorcycle speedweek Daytona's fast-food joints were filled with ubiquitous Frenchmen trying to convey the even more ubiquitous grits into their mouths with forks held upside down in their left hands. The Continentals were easy to spot even when they weren't eating, at least after their first sightseeing excursion to Disney World in nearby Orlando. They were the ones wearing the Mickey Mouse ears.
The Americans were the ones wearing sleeveless denim jackets with patches sewn on the back that proclaimed things like DEVILS DICIPLES (sic). Or the Pepsi Generation family of six riding Hondas on the beach single file according to size, like baby ducks.
To be sure, many of the spectators seemed something less than confirmed believers in motherhood and apple pie, but for the most part the rowdy gangs that once scarred motorcycling's image have become civilized, if not perfectly mannered. Some motels actually open their doors to the "clubs," one Daytona resident pointed out, indicating a sign at the Royal Beach Hotel that said WELCOME LOW RATES.
Main Street, in particular the corner by the Pink Pussycat Topless Bar, fairly glittered with motorcycle mania, the principal organized social event being a chopper show on Saturday sponsored by the Rathole Head Shop.
But choppers have little in common with road-race machines, and their recumbent riders have even less in common with road racers. To illustrate the difference, sit down and put your elbows on your knees and your chin on a line with your elbows—that's a road-racer's crouch. In just such a fetal embrace of his machinery a rider screams around Daytona's banking at 180 mph, tucked below a fiber-glass fairing that reduces air drag. If he could hear anything over the 11,000-rpm wail filling his helmet, it would be the whoof-whoof exploding from his own body, the sound of his breath being squished out as his chest smacks against the gas tank with every ripple on the track.
Wind whips into his helmet and blows his eyeballs to the back of their sockets. When he accelerates on the twisting infield portion of the 3.87-mile circuit, his body is snapped back so suddenly it feels as if an offensive guard is using him for a blocking dummy. When he decelerates he must use both hands and both feet to control the clutch and gearshift and throttle and brakes, an elaborately coordinated effort that would make a rock drummer envious. When he corners, he moves his knees and elbows and shoulders and hips into a precise position, like a ballet dancer.
Kenny Roberts, the fast qualifier at 111.456 mph, has the most spectacular style; he literally feels his way through corners with his inside knee. When the knee drags on the ground he knows he's leaned his bike over far enough. Before each race he wraps tape across the padded knee patches on his leathers; by the end of the race the tape is often shaved away.