by Jim Petersen
“How far’d you ride?”
My interrogator is a goateed man in an orange Harley-Davidson T-shirt with Shit Happens emblazoned on the chest. In case that shit happens he has a Leatherman in a holster on his belt, next to a similarly sheathed cell phone.
“About 800 feet. We’re journalists.”
Indeed, we’d picked up a V-Rod in a parking lot down the road and motored a short distance to the staging area, to join a HOG cavalcade around a one lap tour of the fabled Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The Brickyard. Upon learning our profession, the Harley guy builds an articulate case for America’s ability to host three MotoGP races, including this one in late August. A Harley guy?
I’d given some thought to attire. Full leathers? An armored adventure touring suit? Leather jacket and jeans? This was sightseeing, not suicide. It was a ceremonial outing on a bike no sane person would take on a track. But this is not a weekend for sanity. The HOG riders are in T-shirts, shorts, bandanas, vests, chaps, chains–anything that sports a Harley logo; when track officials demand they quickly exchange do-rags for helmets.
We wheel out of the parking lot and join the queue for the track. We pass groups of mongrel bikes, squadrons of scooters, pods of sport bikes, some with passengers perched on the pillion. Buttocks and backpacks, amen.
A sign list rules for a track lap: 35 mph speed limit. Single file. No burnouts. I assume they take that down on race day. We pass beneath the stands, pipes thundering. Then we’re on the track. The pavement is smooth, in better shape than any road in Illinois or for that matter, any road I’ve been on in five years. After a few practice laps Casey Stoner had complained that it was too smooth, too slick—dangerously so—in spite of setting a record lap time. Whiny Australian. Maybe my fellow tourists will put down enough rubber to give the racers traction.
Down the front straight I am aware of Red Bull logos every 30 feet, those head butting beasts in front of a blazing sun, yielding to white Tissot billboards. To my right, a two tiered grandstand, empty now. I pass the white hash marks of the starting grid and realize with the kind of gut-wrenching vertigo one experiences on a precipice—that I have not earned the right to be there, have not done the work to put myself in one of those 30 or so slots. Off the oval and into the first series of turns. Tight on a V-Rod, but I imagine, even tighter on a 240-horsepower MotoGP missile or the three abreast slice-and-dice of the XR1200 series. I lose track of the stands and focus on the track, the next apex, the paint, the pure pleasure of being on a motorcycle. Does Nicky Hayden ever feel this grand? The Doctor?
Some 64,000 fans will show up for race day. All of them will be parked on Meridian street (renamed Casey Stoner Ave) by sunset on Friday. Chevrons of gleaming metal illuminated by hidden LEDs, in all the colors of passion. The full bike fashion show. Torn jeans. Tattoos. Smiles. Rock groups and DJs blasting sounds into the air. Freestyle riders burning rubber in alleys. Friends clinking glasses at sidewalk cafés. This, I think, is the heart of the weekend, of the sport.
The weekend poses specific challenges. I am surrounded by the Harley-Davidson tribe at what is essentially a sportbike contest. I am not by nature a fanboy—I don’t do spectator sports, unless you count porn. I will try to see the event through other people’s eyes. This is what I discover at the heart of Harley.
In the parking lot outside the track I watch a man trace the curve of a rear fender, noting to a companion how the shaft of slanting sun softens the flare of the metal. He should know. Steve Collins had designed the 2012 Night Rod Special. He points out his favorite parts—the microthin rear light that keep the silhouette low, the slender lines that accent the oversize rear tire, the new wheels that cut weight and improve handling. He’d worked in clay, a process so pleasurable that it had been hard to stop. Even in parking lots, he is still designing, refining, looking for ways to renew a legend.
In a bar where tanning-bed blondes offer bits of rare meat on toothpicks, I run into Paul James, a media relations guy I’d dealt with for years, in the flesh. I can put a face to the name, a face made memorable by a gashed nose. He’d highsided on a practice lap (“I left a divot in the track!!”) the day before, piloting an XR 1200 in the qualifying round. His crew had engraved their names on the remains of the exhaust pipe. He was good to go.
The big time MotoGP stars are hidden away in million dollar buses; their bikes sheltered in locked garages, hidden in a maze of check points and security guards. In contrast, the XR 1200 competitors stay under a series of tents on the other side of the infield, open to the public. I ask one competitor if I can photograph the tattoo on his forearm.
UNTIL THE THRILL OF SPEED OVERCOMES THE FEAR OF DEATH
The bikes stream past the stands in a tight single file, the drivers drafting, throwing themselves elbow to elbow into turn one. A misjudgment sweeps five bikes out of contention, a tumble of bowling pins across the grass. The lead changes hands repeatedly. Tyler O’Hara, a kid who builds dairy barns in Petaluma and poster boy privateer, crosses the finish line in first place. Unused to the etiquette, he turns a victory lap into another gazillion burnouts, shredding his clutch in celebration. He finishes by running with the checkered flag back to the pits. A moment completely unrehearsed and totally infectious. He puts the trophy on the workbench under the Harley tent, rebuilds the bike and fights to a place on the podium in the second round. Heart.
Eddie Krawiec, champion drag racer, gives us a tour of the Vance & Hines factory. When he’d started, they turned out 25 pipes a month; now the production team sends out 250 a day. A separate shed turns 40 pound blocks of metal into 15 pound cylinder heads, transforming V-Rod and Suzuki engines into fire breathing monsters. The naughty bits are covered with plastic, or red shop rags—we are the press, and secrets are secrets. The walls of the shop are covered in photos celebrating championships, the first run into the sixes or a 199.17 mph run in Gainesville. A V-Rod gas tank signed by every employee at the KC V-Rod plant. Heart. At lunch, he sits with his daughter on his lap, talking about chasing 200 mph, the world of reaction times, the universe of time contained in the microseconds it takes for the front wheel of a drag bike to break the beam. Heart.
How many dots in a Jumbotron? One for each fan? Across the infield people stop and stare at the giant screens, while 100 yards away, real racers on real motorcycles touch knees to pavement, rise and accelerate to 200 mph. The screens give the whole lap, the passes, the crashes in silence, one that is broken when the spectators cheer, sharing the air with the scream of engines.
You do not experience the speed on the screen. I try to photograph bikes coming down the straight. I end up with empty frames, or the tail pieces of motorcycles. I cannot pan as quickly as the bikes accelerate. If this were skeet shooting, I’d lose.
At the Yamaha pavilion I watch kids don motocross helmets, help each other tug on goggles, and gloves, then sit patiently for the chance to ride around hay bales on tiny dirt bikes. They are for the most part, unafraid. Heart.
In the Rooke custom tent, an artist applies pinstripes to a brushed metal gas tank. Red and yellow streamers join the carmine colored living steak of a Red Bull. The logo is everywhere. Liquid caffeine is America’s new religion. At the close of racing on Saturday, a line of fans stretches across the infield, a half mile or so, waiting to pass under a giant tire with the red bull logo, to collect promotional material of an unspecified nature.
I wonder who has the most clout. Who will decide the future of the Indy motorcycle event? Red Bull? The manufacturers? Dorna? Or the fans? Can America support three MotoGP races? Would you say no to this kind of passion?