The thing that drove Pete Hames into retirement was the never-ending nagging from his dad. "Don't stand there and tell me you don't feel like racing," Don Hames would growl, bending over so he could jaw at his son nose to nose. "Don't you want to win? No? No? Then you're wasting your time. And you're sure wasting mine." Nag, nag, nag. Finally, Pete just up and retired, walked away from motorcycle racing. He was five years old at the time.
That was in the summer of 1970. Pete had a Yamaha 60, a little bitty bike only about this high. At top speed, maybe 30 mph, it sounded as if it was powered by a gang of angry bumblebees. His dad had bought it when Pete was four—please note that Pete hadn't asked for it—and had plopped the kid down on it and sent him out on scrambles over hills and through gulches and in dirt-track races at places like Cycle Park and Indian Dunes near Los Angeles. The tots would roar around and around and around in a waist-high cloud of dust for perhaps four miles per event. There were horrendous skids and crashes. Some of the children would get up gamely and go on; some would dissolve into muddy tears of frustration and call for their mothers.
There were then—and are right now—hundreds of kiddies in just this situation in California and elsewhere around the country, tots in tailored leather racing suits and heavy crash helmets that look like big bubbles on the kids' heads and wobble loosely, forever slipping down over their eyes. They ride scaled-down motorcycles—real motorcycles, all right, but miniaturized. Most of the children are the victims of the Little League-parent syndrome carried to its farthest reach: Don Hames would push Pete out into the races and then stand around the infield with the other dads, drinking cans of beer from their coolers and telling each other outrageous lies about how their kid's bike was pure stock, right off the showroom floor, nothing added. Not true, of course. The daddies were secretly tweaking those little engines; hell, these guys would hop up toy Lionel trains. The prizes at stake were trophies, most of them teacup-size. But if a kid didn't win one, dad took it personally.
Talk about an edgy family situation: In those days, Pete represented Don Hames's last chance to have fun. Don had been a motorcycle racer in his youth. "I was an also-ran," he says now, but he has always been crazy about the sport. Don and Jo Ann Hames had two girls before Pete came along, Dawn Dee, now 22, and Lisa, 19, and Don tried to turn them into racers, with no luck. He bought a minibike for Dawn Dee, which she rejected, and then bought her a real, expensive, quarter-midget race car, just like A.J. Foyt had as a kid. But Dawn Dee wasn't having any of it.
It wasn't until Don backed off and got hold of his emotions that the family tension dissipated. But then Pete had quit motorcycle racing and scampered off to play baseball and flag football—football, for God's sake, how embarrassing—but Don determinedly kept quiet about it. And then, when Pete was eight, Don bought the kid another present. One more try. It would be better this time, Don vowed, much more fun. No more nagging, no pressure. "Look at this, Pete," he said. "It's a new Honda XR75. And Daddy's going to hop it up."
There are no more angry bumblebees—the sound has grown now into a high-pitched snarl that echoes off the foothills on this chill California night. A pack of motorcycles in full howl creates a weird and discomforting effect: The sound actually hurts the teeth, the way a dentist's high-speed drill does before it ever touches the tooth. There are 10 real racing bikes in this heat on the half-mile track at Corona Raceway, all skidding and jostling through the corners, canted sharply to the left and throwing up plate-size divots of wet red clay.
No. 87R is the one to watch. It's a Harley-Davidson XR750, one of only 600 built, an exotic, mean bike made for just one purpose, dirt-track racing. The Harley, a mix of brutal and strangely delicate parts, churns out perhaps 65 hp—"a goddamn rocket ship," says Don. It screams down the back straightaway at about 85 mph, and because of the poor lighting at Corona, it seems to flicker along as it goes, passing two, three, four other bikes. The rider throws it into a long slide at the corner, thrusting his left leg out for support. And then, straightening up coming off the curve, he half rises from the seat and yanks up and back on the handlebars. The motorcycle rears up in the beginning of a wheelie and then slams down with an even louder snarl, shooting forward. "He does that to force weight onto the rear wheel," says Don. "It loads up the power instantly and shoots the bike ahead."
There's nothing smooth about any of this. It would be different on pavement, but racing at this speed on unevenly graded dirt seems to give the bike a life of its own. No. 87R bucks and fights the rider, and he controls it with hard, punching moves. He's wearing a two-pound, strap-on steel sole on his left boot, slightly turned up at the toe, and when he drags it along in the turns like an outrigger, it occasionally fires sparks.
Once more around and the heat is over, and No. 87R, the easy winner, comes rumbling into the infield. The rider, skinny and caved in at the stomach, lifts off his helmet and shakes his head, creating, in this dim light, an explosion of golden ringlets. He gives his dad a long, knowing look, of a secret shared. Then they break into wide grins.
So here's Pete Eugene Hames: retired at five, reactivated at eight, now 17 years old. He's a junior in high school, which has absolutely no bearing on anything that will follow here; he's barely hanging on at Simi Valley High, doing just well enough to graduate next year and then that's it with school forever. More important now, to Pete and all the people starting to surround him, he's a full-blown professional dirt-track racer. He's now on a schedule, with one season to go as a so-called Junior Pro, the last round before he gets his Expert license and a shot at all of the big stuff he wants. What Pete wants, in order, are the Grand National Championship in dirt-track racing and then the world road-racing title.