Were they that high?

When visiting John Binder, one of the “old pharts” in Frank Del Monte’s orbit of British bike aficionados, I discovered a distinguished set of classic motorcycles and a spotless garage/workshop.  Holding 45 motorcycles at one point, John’s recently cut his collection to just over a half dozen exceptionally special and historic bikes.  These are carefully set up at various workstations making it convenient for his meticulous restoration work.

Full size pic at end.

After a tour and hearing the histories and stories of each bike, we lounged in his shop, reminiscing about younger days riding and racing.  Photos on the walls show John racing on Catalina Island in the mid-’50s and at Ascot Park Raceway in Los Angeles. These photos, mostly black & white, are impressive. John’s face is clearly visible; his left leg kicked out as he leads a cluster of racers in vintage helmets on numbered bikes, sliding around a corner.  While John admits to not always ending at the top of the podium, he nearly always finished close to the winner.

Full size pic at end.

In this photo of him at Ascot Park, in a half-mile TT (Tourist Trophy) Race, John finished in the #3 position, riding his 250 C-15 BSA (#238R). Winning the race and pictured just a few feet ahead of John in the photo, is Gene Romero, #121.  Romero was sponsored by Triumph and later Yamaha factory racing teams. He won the 1970 AMA Grand National Championship and the 1975 Daytona 200.  Romeo was inducted into the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 1998.

I recently come across some old photos showing my early humble racing attempts.  Unlike John, few of my efforts were sanctioned by anyone.  Of greatest surprise was seeing how those huge jumps on our makeshift motocross course had shrunk in the pictures to just piles of dirt maybe 5-6 feet high. Somehow in my mind, I transferred those early riding experiences to something looking like the modern stadium-style motocross course.  While nothing could be further from the truth, the photo at the top of this piece shows me appearing to have launched myself near the peak of my house.  More cringe-worthy than the height, is the total lack of protective equipment – helmet, boots, padded jacket, gloves.  Invulnerable in those days, my suspicion is we all can recount moments that in retrospect we’re a bit surprised we survived.

At one point my motorcycle mechanic and former motocross racer directed me to a friend of his who had a farm where they’d constructed a make-shift practice motocross track.  The quarter-mile track was complete with several large mounds of black dirt and a section of smaller whoops and several tight, steeply banked turns.   It was a completely informal and fun place to practice motocross riding skills.  After a few weekends I was beginning to get the hang of things. One Friday night I was talking to a young woman at a bar.  Certain the site of me flying high over mounds of black dirt would impress her immensely and melt her heart, I invited her to where we practiced and drew her a map on a cocktail napkin. Practicing the next morning, I kept looking down the road leading to the farm, hoping to see her car appear, and eventually, it did.  Timing my moves carefully, I rode the track slowly until the car with this young woman and her friend parked and they’d walked a bit closer to the track. Then I pulled out all the stops and let it rip.  I hit each jump to ensure maximum altitude.  I most certainly must have cleared 15 or 20 feet in the air.  I slid around the corners with the back wheel spinning furiously, sending a stream of dirt flying. Pretending I’d noticed them for the first time, I rode the bike over to where they were standing, locking the rear brake as I slid to a stop close to them, letting the tall bike with its 36 inch seat height lean over so I could get a leg down with my 29 inch inseam. I dismounted, pushed the bike back straight and onto its side stand, and removed my helmet and smiled. She and her girlfriend rushed up to me, giggled, and she said, “Wow, that’s amazing. You looked just like those monkeys in the circus riding ponies over those jumps.”  As you can imagine, this was not the effect I was going for, but I had to admit, on these very tall bikes with the suspension set to provide maximum cushion for landing softly, my short legs did not come close to reaching the ground.

Like a lot of riders, I went through a track-day phase when living in California.  When trying to channel MotoGP racers like Kenny Roberts, seeing photos of myself on the track, I look more like Kenny Rogers, the country-western singer. I wrote a story about one of the track schools I attended and chronicled that experience here.

Looking back on how we rode, I sometimes wonder if those hills and jumps were bigger or smaller than they were in our minds.

I first observed this time impacted disorientation when revisiting a favorite family picnic spot from my youth. Now in our twenties, my brother Leif and I joined our family at a park near Taylors Falls, MN.  The park sits along the St. Croix River, outside of the Twin Cities of Minneapolis/St. Paul. We’d come here when we were kids, perhaps when in junior high school.  The picnic area provides easy access to the river for swimming, and lots of hiking trails leading to the high cliffs rising above the river.  I reminded my brother as youngsters, we’d hiked these trails and launched ourselves into the river.  “Maybe we can find the spot from where we jumped,” I said as we headed out.  After less than 15 minutes climbing the trail through the trees, we were a good way up the cliff.  As we approached a clearing we cautiously approached the edge. I got on my knees to crawl a bit closer, Leif was brave enough to slowly walk to the edge, and we both peered down at the churning water below.  Then we retreated about 10-15 feet back to confer.  “This couldn’t be where we jumped, could it?”  We both concluded this was far too high above the river, it couldn’t have been the spot.  One could get seriously hurt hitting the water from this height. One more peak over the ledge and we both agreed, we couldn’t have jumped from here.

As we were about to turn around, we heard the voices of young kids, coming up the trail.  They were running, approaching rapidly, yelling, and carrying on as kids do.  Not knowing how many there were or how fast they were going, we stepped back out of the way, to let them pass.  The first skinny kid of about 8 years old glanced to the right and noticed us but did not miss a step, as he ran toward the edge and launched himself into the river, arms flailing and yelling.  In just another second or two, another flash passed, making the same jump, followed by 3 more.  Whoosh… whoosh… whoosh they went.  Leif and I slowly approached the ledge again, looking down at the five young kids in the water, laughing, splashing as they swam toward the shore.  After a moment of silence, I mumbled, “Well, maybe we did jump from here. We must have been nuts.” 

Ascot Park Race with Gene Romero (#121) leading. John Binder (#238R) is just behind him and to the left, on his BSA 250 C-15

 

 

John Binder, bike #51, racing on Catalina Island in 1958. As always, John ran near the front of the pack, nearly always in contention to win.

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4 Responses to Were they that high?

  1. John J Gravley says:

    I believe I took the picture at the top of this page. Linda and I had come over from Mankato for a visit and you talked me into taking some pictures of you jumping the bike off a dirt mound. If I remember correctly, I even took some pictures where I was laying beside the mound and you went right over the top of me. Correct me if I’m wrong but that’s what I remember.

    • Steve Larsen says:

      My guess is you are correct. I don’t recall a lot about when the photo was taken or who took it, but jumping over a person laying on the ground, sure rings a bell, as part of this series of shots. So, I’m guessing this is your photo, but likely taken with my camera. Which is why I ended up with it. This was in the days of film, of course.

  2. John J Gravley says:

    Yeah, it would have been taken with your camera and, as far as when it was taken, it was probably 1977. 1976 is also a possibility but those are the only two years that Linda and I lived in Mankato. Also, you weren’t in the house in Kasson for that many years, were you?

  3. Steve Larsen says:

    No, maybe 2-3 years, I think. I moved away from Kasson in 1978 sometime.

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