There was a time when motorcycle racers were as rowdy as they were hardy, given to shenanigans that caused decent folks to nail boards over their windows, send the women and children to Grandma's and hide the dog in the garage when the racers came to town. But today tens of thousands of those same decent citizens crowd into such places as the Los Angeles Coliseum to watch motocross races, and politicians compose proclamations dedicating entire weeks to the sport of motorcycle racing. The riders are changed men.
Well, most of them are. There is one bunch that remains fiercely anachronistic: the hillclimbers. If stock-car drivers think sports-car drivers are sissies, they must love professional hillclimbers. Ask a motorcycle hillclimber what a Gucci loafer is and the odds are he'll guess it's a lazy Italian. There aren't many hillclimbers under the age of 35; they are wiry ol' boys who munch Red Man, and what they don't swallow they spit on the hill in defiance. Many let the straps of their helmets dangle at their jaws and wear long-sleeved jerseys instead of protective leather jackets. Their bikes have orange flames painted on the gas tanks and some even have been given names, like The Midnight Ghost. The lingo runs to talk like "he ain't gettin' nuff gription with his tars," and the riders refer to each other as "good runners" and "top point-getters." They arrive at each event on a Saturday evening, towing their bikes on home-built trailers behind 1969 Caddies and the like, drink all night, grab a couple of hours sleep in the back seat, and wake up when the spectators start arriving and the PA system begins blaring something like God's Gonna Get' cha (For That).
The American Motorcycle Association National Championship Hillclimb is by far the richest of the year; it attracts the 30 best riders and the largest audience. This year it will be held at Mount Garfield near Muskegon, Mich., on Aug. 1. Last summer the site was Jefferson, Pa., a hinterlands town not far from Hanover, where some of the world's fastest standardbreds are trained. Chief of the four-person Jefferson police force is a bushy-browed, gentleman of Pennsylvania Dutch heritage, short of hair and wide of girth.
"Biggest trouble we ever had was when 18 of them got to racing their cycles the wrong direction around the roundabout in the town square," says the Chief. "Didn't want to but had to bust 'em; we don't even let the townfolk do that."
The rest of the AMA circuit is a long-running theater of nostalgia, held over for years in towns named Egypt, East Palestine and such. It consists of about 18 events through the summer, most of them in the East. The average purse is a paltry $1,500, and there is little sponsorship or contingency money; hillclimbing is earthy, not glamorous.
Fittingly the hillclimb rulebook is a thin one. In fact, the only rule that counts for much is the one that defines a rider as being officially in control of his motorcycle if he reaches the finish line with at least one hand still on the handlebars. Notice that this rule does not require both hands to be on the bars, nor does it mention feet, seat or any other part of the anatomy that is generally considered helpful in controlling a motorcycle. It does not matter in the least where the rest of a rider's body may be when the motorcycle reaches the top of the hill. The rule tells a lot about the sport.
Hillclimbing is no more of a race than pole vaulting. The competitors climb the hill one at a time, timed by clock, and if nobody can reach the top the winner is the man who comes closest in his three attempts. They start from a rut at the bottom of the hill, and each rider has his own idea about how long and deep the rut should be to provide the most traction. Shaping this take-off point is a ritual; the riders call it "farming for turnips." A rider will pick and shovel the rut, and kick and scratch at it with the heel of his boot; he will study it like a golfer lining up a putt. When he is finally satisfied that it is the proper shape, he will back his machine into the rut and, often with a heavy sigh, lower his body onto the seat with the same gentle care a cowboy takes in mounting a bronco in the chute. For a moment he will sit motionless, staring almost straight up at the hill, trying to psych it out as if he is a fighter and it is his opponent, which is not far wrong. Then he reaches down and grabs a fistful of dirt and rubs it between his sweaty palms, and wraps a stringy piece of leather around one wrist. At the end of the leather is a kill switch: if—or more likely when—he crashes, the engine will be shut off as the leather is jerked away from the switch.
A crew member—usually a brother-in-law or a beer-drinking buddy—places a heavy boot on the bike's kick-starter, suspends his weight over the lever and jumps down with a powerful stroke. That the motion be confident is vital: a diffident kick will result in a backfire from the high-compression engine that can toss a man three feet into the air, clutching his twisted ankle in agony as he flies.
The engine fires to life with an unmuffled boom—not the sucking whine of a turbo Offy, or even the strident shriek of a Yamaha road racer, but a raw rumble that shakes the ground all the way to the top of the hill. The rider grips the handlebars, grits his teeth and squeezes the clutch lever with the fingers of his left hand. He snaps the bike into gear with his foot, twists the throttle full-on with his right hand, and wham! his left fingers snap open, the clutch lever springs out, and the bike is lost in a cloud of exploding earth as if a hand grenade had been dropped into the rut.
People standing near the starting line scatter. Spectators sitting at the bottom of the hill, often separated from the starting line by a wire fence like a batter's cage, protect themselves. Some turn their faces away and listen—they can tell from the sound how successful a run is—exposing the backs of their necks to the flying clumps of dirt and stones the size of golf balls. Some hide behind programs; some bury their faces in their hands and peek out between their fingers as the thundering brown cloud rolls up the hill. The cloud once knocked a spectator clean out at Everett, they say.