|The Motorcycle Experience
From the Beginning
|The Early Years
One of my earliest and best childhood memories is of my dad lifting me up on the gas tank of his
mid-1950's Cushman scooter, with him at the controls and my older brother on the passenger seat.
That day we took the back roads to the home of our longtime friends, the Langellier's, where I hung out
with my buddy Mark and our primary goal was to irritate our older sisters. That was the start of my love
affair with motorcycles. Riding on the back of that Cushman during summer months in Eastern Illinois
was a rare but always wonderful experience. The scooter had quite a history, as it was a relic even in the
late-1970's when I was growing up. My dad owned it as a teenager, and when he and my mom were
dating they would hop on and take long rides in the country. My older brother Jim got to ride it solo
when he was about 11 years old, much to the dismay of my mother. The rule was, if you could start it,
you could ride it. Easier said than done. To get the engine running, you had to jump on the kick starter
and throw down all your weight. Jim spent many hours jumping down on that thing before he decided to
try using a pair of dress shoes that had stiffer soles. All of a sudden, there he was, riding an antique
scooter with old clothes and fancy shoes. The Cushman wasn't designed as a dirt bike but it got plenty
of miles up and down the soybean rows on our farm.
My first solo experience on a motorcycle was on my cousin Randy Wilcox's Honda Z50, a nearly
indestructible minibike on which hundreds of thousands of kids have started their dirt bike careers
(including 2000 National 125cc Motocross Champ Travis Pastrana). Randy wasn't afraid of much, and I
can remember watching him get major airtime (at least a foot or two) on that little bike out in Johnson's
Woods. Just about every summer, another set of cousins, Tim and Dave Leamy from Southern
California, would visit for a week or two and spend most of the time riding dirt bikes. Randy and the
Leamy brothers came from the same blood, apparently lacking the "fear" part of their DNA structure. For
some reason all of the full-size motorcycles that the "big boys" rode were Suzuki TS bikes of various
sizes, which weren't what I would call hardcore dirt bikes. Dave, Randy, and I would share the Z50 while
Tim and Jim and the adults would ride the TS's. The real nutcase of the bunch was Terry Johnson, who
was about 10 years older than the rest of us kids and had the biggest bike (a TS250, I think). In the
woods that his family owned, he had made some trails that included a large jump coming up out of a
steep creek bank. Now, maybe it was because I was only 10 years old at the time, but I had never seen
anyone jump so high. Lords only knows the crazy stuff he could have done with a modern-day
motocross bike. He was my hero.
My First Motorcycle
One day in 1983 my dad came home with the best proposition an 11-year-old could hear: the local Suzuki
dealer had obtained a couple of leftover 1981 TS100's, brand new, and exactly the same as the one my
brother had been riding for a couple of years. He offered me the same deal that Jim got: pay for half, and
he would match the other half. The total purchase price was about $700, so $350 was well within my life
savings from walking beans during the summers. I was one happy guy. Who cared if the bike was about
three sizes too big for me? I could start it, so I could ride it. And ride it I did. I was allowed to ride up
and down the country road in front of our house, which was 1.5 miles long, and I could ride in our fields
that bordered the whole 1.5 miles on one side of the road. So basically I had a 400-acre playground right
behind my house. Life was good. A couple of times each summer, my dad would ride Jim's motorcycle
and would lead me around the countryside on backroads that I had never traveled. Somehow he always
knew where we were and how to get back home. One time I ran out of fuel somewhere in Indiana, but my
dad saved the day...he knew someone who lived nearby and gave us gas. My TS100 still resides on the
farm, as does my brother's.
In 1986, Suzuki updated their dual-sport (on/off road) lineup with an affordable pair of SP models that I
fell in love with. The SP125 and SP200 used the same chassis, with the only difference being the engine
and transmission. Red, white and blue, they had the coolest dirtbike look, similar to the Honda XL
motorcycles. And they were street legal, which stimulated not-too-distant fantasies of riding one to
school and being the coolest guy around. The best part was the prices, which even I could afford from
working summers on the farm. I figured the larger SP200 could cruise at 55 mph on the street, so that
was the motorcycle I had to have. It only took about a year to work up my nerve to ask my dad if I could
buy one. By that time it was the Fall of 1987, and he agreed to take me around to the Suzuki dealers to
find one. The Urbana, Illinois dealer had a couple leftover models that they were trying to get rid of
before the 1988 bikes started arriving, so my dad did the dealing and I ended up with a 1987 Suzuki
SP200. A week later we picked it up, met Jim, my sister Laura, and brother-in-law-to-be Mark (all
University of Illinois students), and went out to dinner. I was so very proud. I rode it to high school
many times, often in very cold weather, but it sure beat riding the bus to school. On hot summer days I
would explore miles of country roads, sometimes riding 100 miles in an afternoon. The last time I rode
my SP was in Montana and the Black Hills of South Dakota, putting on 500 miles in three days. I sold
that bike in 1998, just before moving to St. Louis. I still miss it.
Dirt Biking: The Hardcore Years
After I graduated from college in 1993, I set my sights on a dirt-only motorcycle. Once again, Suzuki had
just what I needed: a 1994 RMX250. Owning that bike was a learning experience in every way. I couldn't
believe how much power it had, and all the stuff it could blast through. One of my dad's farms had
several acres of woods and old pasture, so over a couple years I developed a trail loop of about 3 miles.
The woods, like most of Illinois, were pretty much a big swamp, so I buried that thing in the mud many
times. Once my dad and I had to get a winch to pull the back end out of a mud hole. Another time I
dumped it over in a creek and could see just the end of the handlebar sticking up out of the water. That
was a lesson in draining the water from the engine--turn it upside down with the spark plug removed,
start cranking the kickstarter, and watch water spit out of the spark plug hole.
I tried racing for the first time in June 1994 at a hare scramble near Decatur, Illinois. I couldn't believe
how fast some of the guys were going in the woods. My goal was to finish, which I did, but I was so hot
and tired afterwards that I felt sick. I finished 8th out of 10 guys in my class, but the two guys I beat did
not finish the race. Obviously, my conditioning would have to improve, along with my riding skills. Over
the next year I tried to get in better shape and ride in different areas to experience other types of
terrain. In 1995 I raced 7 or 8 times, tried my first enduro, and broke my first bones (two in my left
foot). In 1996 I bought a new RMX250 and won my first trophy, a 2nd place finish in the Big B class at
the same course near Decatur where I did my first race. Even though it was a rainy, muddy day and
there were only 4 people in my class, it was still a milestone. In 1998 I won my second trophy there and
added a couple more at other races.
The turning point came in 1999 when I started racing the KTM and stepped up my racing schedule. The
St. Louis area has several clubs within an hour of my place, and they each put on a couple of races each
year. So unlike Eastern Illinois, many of the races were a convenient 1-2 hour drive. Riding more often
definitely improved my skills and conditioning, although I still struggled in the Missouri rocks. Of the
trophies I won in 1999, only one came from Missouri and that was in the extreme northeast corner on
terrain that was just like what's in Illinois. With more practice and help from the Scotts steering
stabilizer, I greatly improved my ability to ride in the rocks in 2000, winning a few trophies at Missouri
races and finishing 6th in series points in the Open B class (despite racing only about half of the events).
The highlight of the year was winning the Open B class at the Rattlesnake Enduro near Winterset, Iowa in
September 2000. After 6 years of trying, I had finally realized an important goal.
More milestones came in 2002, when I finally won my class at the Florence, Missouri hare scramble. I
finished the year with a streak of 5 class wins in a row and won the MHSC Open B class for 2002. Also,
for the first time ever, I accumulated some overall points in the '02 MHSC series, with three top-20
Racing is a very expensive activity, but I have a good job and live pretty frugally in the other areas of my
life. And I hate to say this (sorry, married guys), but being single helps a lot [editor's note: my, how
things have changed....]. Most people who get to know me as a banker can hardly imagine me competing
in off-road motorcycle events until they actually see it for themselves. Besides the pure enjoyment
factor, I like that it sets me apart from the typically conservative, weekend golfers who are a common
type in my business world. As long as my body can handle the punishment of racing, the dirt bike will
remain an important part of my weekend activities.
|In the beginning....
Note the headlight for night riding, the speedometer so I always knew how fast I was riding,
and the old-school banana seat (an aftermarket accessory).
|Editor's Note: This was written long before I was married with kids.