July 2007

 

The Rise of the Vintage Motorcycle Competition Movement in America

 

Gary L. Winn

 

 

The DT-1: Headlong into Popular Culture

 

As Ed Youngblood has argued, in the years before 1960, it was not possible to buy a purpose-built, lightweight motorcycle in the U.S., and most Americans were tired of slogging through mud with heavy Harley-Davidsons. The economy was good and motorcyclists clamored for smaller, multi-purpose machines to be used off-road. In addition to the Husqvarna, there was the exciting Yamaha DT-1, a motorcycle not even sold in Japan, but designed specifically to meet an American market niche. And it did. Motocross motorcycle sales and dual-purpose bike sales went to heights unanticipated by the industry, the AMA, or the public. In the early 1970s, off-road bikes were a user-friendly way to expose thousands to the virtues of family recreation, and the thrill of individual competition. With the DT-1 and Husqvarna came a flood of European competitors hungry to see the USA, and they came with “Olympic mystique [and] personal trainers,” says Youngblood. How very European.

 

The paradigm of motorcycle use changed like Kuhn’s Gestalt switch. Utilitarian and out-of-sight in the first half-century, then too much in the public eye in the second half, motorcycles were ridden by millions every weekend and on most Sundays as these seemed best for competition schedules. But by 1980 or so, the country had clearly entered a “graying” period which monumentally affected health care, medicine, insurance, faculty size and diverse aspects of our culture. The proportion of Americans over 50, greater than ever before, created huge markets for everything from personal care products to gated communities in which to live. Senior citizens in RVs traveled across America, well into their eighties. They were physically active far longer, and indeed physical fitness for seniors became a rage in itself, and the life expectancy of Americans increased. The “graying of America” phenomenon swayed motorcycling, too. While the AMA’s ranks of sanctioned professional and amateur events ballooned to over 2,000, the membership average age also grew until AMA could no longer afford to reward those with the requisite twenty-five years support with free member services, and so it began charging a modest fee for its “life members.” And many graying racers still wanted to race. 

 

Here were forty- and fifty-year-olds who grew up watching their European stars. Those people wouldn’t be turned out to pasture but would expand the motorcycle and competition markets even further, creating an entirely new market. While others in California, Florida and New Hampshire had a real head start, a truly national vintage movement started unofficially in March 1981, the date of the first vintage-only AMA-sanctioned motorcycle competition at Daytona International Speedway. The date marks the beginning of an era for a dedicated group of enthusiasts as culturally unique as the one Torsten Hallman brought with Husqvarna to America in 1966. 

 

The vintage motorcycle competition movement can be characterized simply. While there are no age restrictions, the machinery used must meet strict safety rules and a general conformity to that raced before 1975, a magical and arbitrary cutoff year established for two reasons. First, it was the time when small, Japanese two-strokes began wining premier U.S. roadraces with regularity. Second, it marks the time when long-travel motocross suspensions were introduced. Both of these changes were viewed with disdain by racing traditionalists in America. 

 

Further, the American vintage competitors tacitly selected the European model of class structure and class nomenclature. The main vintage sanctioning bodies are formed on the principle that competition machines are meant to be ridden and not merely parked in a concourse stall with velvet ropes. Therefore, machines have no top-speed governors or NASCAR-type air restrictors. While most vintage sanctioning bodies are formed on the principle that they would showcase the rarest and most exotic machines in their “premier” classes, they have expanded to include more of the mundane machines to fill out classes and provide classes for the more penurious racer. Riders must come with previous race experience to obtain a license, or take classes to meet minimum skill levels. Original outward machine appearance is a requirement, but inside is mostly fair game, except for displacement limits. Best of all, a rider can retire from twenty years of professional AMA racing one day and race “vintage” the next day, often with the same machine once outclassed among pro riders. With major vintage races groups in every large country and with tens of thousands of racers worldwide, how did vintage motorcycle competition become a unique part of the American cultural landscape?

 

Precursors to the Rise of Vintage Motorcycle Competition in the U.S.

 

Ironically, vintage motorcycle competition emerged on the popular culture scene because of modern engineering technology, not vintage engineering. Racers can select from a wide variety of materials, technologies and safety gear unavailable when the machines were originally raced. The use of magnesium and lightweight alloy, once reserved for only the most exotic machines, is now much more commonplace among vintage racers. Once called “unobtanium” and used only in the aerospace industry, titanium is widely advertised and used in axles and fasteners for durability and weight savings. Thin-wall tubing has replaced heavy tube-and-cast lug technology and still looks the part. Engineering technology has also greatly impacted vintage motorcycle competition. Computer aided design (CAD) using such software as AUTOCAD allows high quality, pre-dimensioned drawings to be created, stored and transferred by Internet quickly and reliably. This technology has created a cottage industry for vintage racers, something like the advent of the steel industry’s mini-mills, smaller and more efficient and producing a value-added phase of a product, not the whole product itself, and utilizing a small workforce of skilled craftsmen and few laborers. CAD designs can be further reduced to paper-tape or PC instructions for machine tools, a process called computer aided machining (CAM) or “computer numerically controlled” (CNC). Once prohibitively expensive for small-time racers, many lathes and mills now have CNC built in or adaptable to older models. This allows many identical parts to be made for only the cost or re-loading the collets and changing cutting tools. 

 

These engineering technologies provide vintage racers with a virtually unlimited supply of inexpensive spare parts. Vintage-only suppliers abound in this country and elsewhere. To give some benchmark about their enthusiasm for their sport, some entire factory tooling remnants have been purchased outright by owners clubs and resurrected to use the old dies and casting molds, thus supplying racers with hard-to-find parts. Owners clubs of the Vincent and Velocette motorcycles are particularly active in manufacturing “original” parts, having purchased factory tooling.

 

Engineering technologies have improved safety for the vintage racer who may have earlier used only an open-faced helmet and gloves. As we begin a new century, vintage competitors can select from Kevlar-composite helmets with full-face coverage. Racing suits can come with ballistic-quality puncture resistance. Racing gloves may have titanium wear resistors; knee pucks known as “curb feelers” for the high-speed enthusiast are made of wear-resistant plastic. Neck protectors for the vintage racer are available as are boots which flex in only one plane to reduce ankle injuries. Maybe the best example of engineering technology impacting racer safety is the articulated back protector, which slips inside racing suits and looks like an alligator hide. Race sanctioning bodies have not shied away from requiring a steadily improving lot of safety equipment for their competitors, including full-coverage helmets and back protectors. 

 

As a historical footnote, modern engineering has improved the reliability of vintage competition a great deal, and killed misconceptions along the way. Indeed, some large track owners and national race promoters once publicly scorned vintage racing as too retro, an amalgam of oil leaking, smoking bikes and over-the-hill riders. Modern engineering and close attention to safety and appearance has not only eliminated the actual problems but dispelled the stereotype, making the vintage racers neo-darlings of many a race weekend.

 

Engineering technology has vastly improved race tire technology, too, because tires and the heat they generate are one important limitation to achieving more speed for any motorcycle. Long gone are street treads and universal competition types from paved tracks, and even the high-tech “triangular” patterns of the late 1970s. In their places are tires produced in traditional tread patterns on resurrected molds or radial plies to further reduce heat made with high-tech rubber compounds for every condition ranging from cold ambient temperature to rain. (AMA professionals do not ride in the rain, but vintage racers routinely do, even at Daytona and Talledega and Mid-Ohio.) Rubber compounds have improved so much with tires becoming “sticky” that it is not uncommon to see machines being pushed from place to place in the pit areas with dozens of small gravel chips adhering to the tires. It is also not uncommon to be able to shove a thumbnail into the race rubber up to 3/16 of an inch. Super-sticky tires are a “must” in vintage racing because racing speeds are often higher now than in the machines’ heyday, sometimes by a full ten to fifteen miles per hour. Vintage off-road bikes have also benefited from improved tire engineering in compound chemistry, but less than pavement racers since off-road tires do not generate the heat of road-race tires.

 

America’s unparalleled transportation system has fostered the vintage competition movement in unexpected ways. We enjoy a system of hundreds of thousands of divided highways, with all-night interchanges ready to efficiently move the vintage race enthusiast to the next venue. The national vintage race sanctioning body, the American Historic Racing Motorcycle Association (AHRMA) and its 5,000 vintage competitors can have a truly national series of race events because travel logistics are easier than when the machines were in their prime. One of AMA’s former race directors, Bill Boyce, told first-person stories of going to Daytona and working on his race bike in an unheated trailer going 50 mph on two-lane roads, sleeping by the roadside, and taking three days to get from Ohio to Florida. That was the part of racing a half century ago that nobody today wants to relive.

 

The nation’s vast and efficient highway system is evidence enough to make the point about fostering vintage racing, but other anecdotes surely help. When my wife Sherry and I organized the first shaky national vintage series, we just assumed there would be only small regional populations of riders attending each event. We didn’t count on people like the Delaware brothers who junked the back seat in their 1975 Lincoln Continental and stuffed two full size racing Triumphs inside, sans front ends which were stowed in the trunk. We saw them in Georgia one week, Colorado the next week, Canada the next, living on road food and credit cards. Similarly, we didn’t count on people like the graduate student in physics at UT Austin who so timed his class schedule that he could finish class on Friday, drive all night to the races, whether in Florida or Ohio, race his Norton Commando all weekend with minimal sleep and drive back in time for class on Monday morning. And lest we think this student flunked out, consider he not only finished his doctorate but he even did a post doc at Penn State while maintaining that race schedule. He has probably acknowledged I-40 and I-10 in his dissertation.

 

I also give considerable credit for the success and rapid growth of vintage racing to the overnight parcel services such as UPS and FedEx, and even the U.S. Postal Service. Parts and even whole machines can be shipped (“multiple boxes each not to exceed 70” girth”) overnight across the world, supplying racers with repair parts and even complete engines. Many vintage competitors have standing FedEx accounts.

 

At the risk of straying from engineering themes, I propose that vintage motorcycle racers exhibit an attribute which makes them unique among motorcyclists, yet they share this characteristic with many other baby boomers, something I call unfulfilled traditionalism, searching for a sense of historical validity. Given our nation’s combination of the world’s longest surviving constitution with a brief national history, many boomers seek something firmer, a sense of roots and tradition, a set of accumulated beliefs. Civil War re-enactors, those who restore historic homes, those favoring European art and architecture: boomers find various avenues to staunch this “unfulfilled traditionalism.”

 

Purely American motorcycle traditions do exist, but they tend to favor heavy V-twin motorcycles, unsuitable for racing. The vintage enthusiast seeks the European model and tries to not simply revive but relive all sorts of uses of the storied German, British, Italian and Swedish machinery, and occasionally even the Czech and Spanish racers in their original flavor and textures. Indeed, as AHRMA was founded, its race structures for road and off-road racing were borrowed from the successful Euro-model, breaking machines into 250, 350, 500 and 750 classes. (Under the AMA “Class C” model derived well before WWII, only the latter of these race classes existed, and even then European machines were displacement-handicapped until 1969.) As AHRMA merged the functions of two smaller but successful regional vintage groups, the Historic Motorcycle Racing Association located in Florida and the California Vintage Racing Group, it maintained these constituent trends of almost excluding Japanese machinery, or at least keeping those machines at arm’s length. Rules drafted at the outset limited participation by non-European machines in the “premier” classes, and prevented the potentially faster Asian two-strokes from racing with the more storied marques from Europe. About a decade into its existence, AHRMA sought rights to use the race structure of the British, European and American Racing Series (BEARS) whose name alone pretty well sums up its intent to restrict Oriental machinery, so strong is this tendency to imitate the Europeans in their own brand of vintage race competition.

 

Vintage motocross rules reject the artificial hills and bulldozer-constructed jumps so popular among modern racers, preferring instead to ride on natural terrain and grass surfaces as the Europeans did in the late 1960s. Vintage trials riders have mutated least from their European progenitors, riding in glens and over rocks and natural surfaces identical except for latitude and longitude to those seen in Scotland in the 1930s. Ubiquitous rainproof Barbour suits and flat hats make it difficult to tell whether this trials event is held in Wales in 1926 or along the Ohio River near Steubenville in 1997, so similar is the terrain and so similar are the machines and demeanor of competitors. The vintage trials riders compete for slowness and deftness on some relatively modern machinery, but part of the attraction is seeing fifty-year-old heavy British singles (the machine, or the rider, or both) pottering along a rock ledge just as they used to do in the English Midlands.

 

I recognize that my notion of “unfulfilled traditionalism” is difficult to make empirical. Indeed, the notion may be no different, really, from what George Will calls the boomers’ tendency toward feelings of self-importance as a group, its “infinite narcissism” and “sense of entitlement.” This is seen in the boomer generation as an entitlement to do whatever seems to trigger a feel-good, Proustian kind of memory. Vintage racers are, indeed, part of a larger group seeking real roots. The American vintage racer seeks a model consonant with his or her own ethnicity and economic class, a model that shares appreciation for ever improving technical accomplishment. Indeed, vintage racers are sometimes fabulously innovative, such as adapting “squish bands” to old pistons or rubber belt drives to fifty-year-old motorcycles not originally designed for them in Hall Green, Midlands, U.K. These improvements are not inconsistent with the European model. This vintage group seeks a high degree of internal structure which it could find in other models, but centers on the English/German model of bureaucratic efficiency, careful adherence to standards and rules, still valuing technical and engineering development.

 

No doubt the European model can be excessively restrictive, and the vintage movement may abruptly shift from it for cause. Still for now, vintage motorcycle racers prefer to find fulfillment by using the European model to mold their events, classes, rules and even biases. It seems to work, especially when the vintage groups add typically American nuance: a constitutional government, for example, or the even more American 501(c) status.

 

The vintage movement is shored up by a generally rising economy. Personal income in the U.S. is up over the two and a half decades of the vintage movement, as is consumer spending. Indeed the vintage racing movement is the very poster child for a strong economy in the U.S. A survey of the AHRMA membership in 1996 revealed the following:

31% of its membership owns a business.

Average member age is 47 years.

16.7% have incomes over $100,000.

43% have college degrees.

Annual motorcycle related spending is about $6,000.

Racers average about 17 nights per year in motels at (or traveling to) race events.

AHRMA members alone represent $31 million in race-related spending.     

 

In its earliest days, vintage racing was once declared to be the fastest growing segment of the motorcycle racing marketplace by an official of the Daytona International Speedway. Admittedly, the motorcycle market was in a funk during the 1980s, but the statement stuck and was repeated often for the next five years or so. The segment is still growing. AHRMA, the largest such group in the world, now has over 5,000 members and holds 100 or so vintage-only regional and national caliber events, expertly organized and conducted. In the Northeast, the United States Classic Racing Association holds a summer-long list of regional vintage events. The AMA has two huge vintage-only events, each a week long, on each coast each year. Thousands attend from dozens of states to race and to watch or swap parts or just get nostalgic.

 

The 1990s brought us the idea of extreme sports. Does vintage motorcycle competition fit that bill? Consider that people in their early 20s normally make up the modern-bike racing population. This population of amateur and professional riders will have few if any children, and probably no mortgage. They circulate at DIS at speeds approaching 145 mph; they may race motocross and jump from thirty foot hills; they ride with no brakes (a rule holdover from the 1920s) on limestone tracks at speeds up to 120 mph.

 

But now consider vintage racing under the same conditions at the same venues, but with people whose average age is 47 years; who have payrolls and employees to consider; who argue lawsuits in state appellate courts; who have fresh hip replacements and 401(k)s to think about; who may be attended trackside by not only their children but their grandchildren. While vintage motorcycle racing may not hew to the Olympian ideal, and may not qualify as “extreme” to Generation Xers who want to see full 360s from their motocross stars, I can guarantee this stuff is extreme to people in their second half-century of life.

 

Has Vintage Motorcycle Competition Peaked?

 

One would think that there are only so many old bikes and so many old riders out there who want to race. Yet this isn’t the case. There are at least five reasons that vintage racing has established a strong American following. Modern engineering practice, good highways, a strong European model to use, an improved economy and the popularity of extreme sports in this country all are responsible. There is another emerging, curious phenomenon, dare I call it vicarious unfulfilled traditionalism, seen in a thriving new generation coming to the vintage races who only know second- or third-hand what it’s like to own and compete on such a machine. These riders, in their twenties and thirties, may have had short careers as professionals or simply want to extend their careers in a little less hectic series. They seem curious to learn about this “European thing” that they know, from copious reading, exists. The phenomenon is real, although there is little way to test the theory. Yet, I see this very phenomenon in the growing population of draft horse enthusiasts in parts of the United States (who would think this segment would ever grow, but it is growing). Vintage car shows and now vintage tractor pulls are populated by as many youngsters as oldsters chronologically a generation away from firsthand experience but just as excited. Vintage motorcycling does not seem to have peaked.

 

Vintage racing is good for America because it rewards what is good about America: innovation in engineering, individual achievement and self-reliance. Its governing bodies hew to a constituency-based constitution of sorts and allow full appeals and due process; it relies upon volunteers for its success; it has a minimum-sized bureaucracy that must be elected, not merely appointed for life. Vintage racing spans demographics because simple money and position can’t guarantee success in vintage races. Considering all its aspects and varieties, vintage motorcycle competition is uniquely American, even if Euro-leaning, a permanent part of the landscape of popular culture, and a vital and healthy one at that. The emergence of a brand new generation interested in supporting the sport suggests vintage racing is here to stay.


Works Cited

 

American Historic Racing Motorcycle Association, Ltd. Annual Membership Survey. 1996.  http://www.ahrma.org/facts.htm.

 

Will, George. “Conservatives Have the '60s to Thank for This....” Washington (Penn.) Observer-Reporter 2 December 2001: Sec. 1.5.

 

Youngblood, Ed. “Edison Dye’s Influence on Off Road Racing.” Racer X Illustrated (June-July 1999): 27-31.

 

 

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