Top Dead Center with Kevin Cameronfeature112

by Thomas Day

 

We are proud to present an interview with Kevin Cameron, exclusive to MMM. The elusive Cycle World columnist grants few interviews. We are honored to bring you this story. –Ed.

Last year, I found myself at one end of an extended and educational email conversation with Kevin Cameron as the result of an article I was working on about motorcycle journalists and writers. A few years earlier, an editor had fired up my curiosity by claiming that Cameron was a motorcycle writer, like many, who needed considerable editorial assistance to appear intelligent. In a previous career incarnation, I’d heard Kevin give a presentation and I suspected he probably wrote at least as well as he spoke. I decided to get a second opinion. DynoTech’s editor, Jim Czekalaof, told me, “The thirty-plus technical articles Kevin Cameron has contributed to DynoTechResearch are printed exactly as received. Since you’ve heard him speak at some technical function, you know that Kevin speaks, even off the cuff, exactly like he writes. I doubt that he has a team of editors helping him in his home office.” Jim forwarded my query to Kevin and an education began that I hope will continue for a long time.

After reviewing Kevin’s most recent book, Top Dead Center (from here on, referred to as TDC), my luck continued last fall when he consented to an interview about the book and his career. We got right into the conversation and I found Kevin to be as eloquent and entertaining on the phone as he is in writing.

In the early chapters of TDC, Kevin described a little of his experience as a partner in a dealership. When I asked for a little background on that business, he said, “I was a partner in a little outfit called Arlington Motorsports (until 1973), which was in Arlington, Massachusetts . . . The thing might have done ok, as a business, but we were mad for racing and spent too much money on it. Kind of like the Cold War.” In the early days of the venture, that madness was affordable. Later the costs got out of hand. “A crankshaft for an H1R was $105 to the dealer, in 1971. By 1977, when Kawasaki were fazing out their KR750 liquid-cooled three cylinder, the cost of the crankshaft to Kawasaki was $850.”

He kept at the racing life for a few more years, but the expense of 4-stroke racing eventually convinced him that he needed a more cost-effective occupation. “Daytona 200 switched to a Superbike race in ‘84. I built a couple of 4-stroke bikes engines and there was no economic basis for it. The thing about a 2-stroke is that, if you have a piston seizure, you can be running in a half an hour. If you wreak a 4-stroke, the chances are that you need an engine.”

Before this interview, I had visions of engines being torn down to molecular parts and sparks flying as motors and frames were redesigned in the pits; but he burst that bubble by describing today vs. the past. “No, it used to be that people’s frames were cracking and repairs were being made. Rich Chambers, who does some announcing now, always had welding gas in the back of his truck and was very generous with it. People welded things with coat hanger, nice soft iron wire. You could hear the sound of die grinders as recently as the early 90’s, because there was still a 250 class. The die grinders that you hear today are doing things like finishing out little cooling holes in brake disk shrouds or finishing the edges of windscreens that have been cut so that they don’t interfere with the rider’s helmet.”

Regarding modern factory pit wrenching, he said, “Nobody works on engines at the races anymore. They just replace them. When Honda was leaving Laguna, this past weekend, I think they had eight of those molded plastic caissons on casters, each of which said ‘RC212VE/Z’ and gave the engine number. Those were the eight engines that were at Laguna for the two factory guys.”

Kevin’s fans have claimed that his academic credentials vary from a tech school background to a PhD in physics. “I’m self-taught in the vocational end and . . .  I had an undistinguished college career at a leaf-encrusted East Coast school. That was in physics and it was clear that I wasn’t going anywhere because I didn’t have the math for it.”

“Years later, I learned that the reason for the clarity in Harry Ricardo’s classic on the internal combustion engine, The High-Speed Internal-Combustion Engine, was that he was advised at university to stay on the practical side and avoid the theoretical, because his math wasn’t so hot. If you have the math, then you can say, ‘Well of course, let’s see now, velocity is going to appear . . .  one, two, three . . . ok, velocity cubed and we’re going to need a coefficient that looks like this and . . .  for small angles of alpha these terms disappear so we end up with this.’ And there is your understanding, but, for me, it has to be a word picture.” His word picture comprehension is what makes those famous Cameron explanations so clear to the rest of us.

Along the education topic, we talked a bit about how the engineering education system is now serving employers. “As the guys at RPI once told me, ‘every new, entering freshman class has better keyboard skills and more math,’ but they are less prepared to deal with the physical world. When those people become engineers, etc. and go on the job, they have to go and do the playing that they would have done when they were 12 or 8 or 16. They do it on the job and some pretty ridiculous things come out of it. But in the end, the same function is performed, namely, the person gets squared away with physical reality.”

Since I spent most of my career in engineering, Kevin offered some belated practical advice. “Now, of course, anyone would be an idiot to go into such [engineering] courses. You know when you go to work, the boss will say ‘I can get four opinions from China for the price of one from you.’”

Kevin’s technical skills are so apparent that they tend to overshadow his ability as a writer, but TDC demonstrates that his writing background is equally impressive. “I’m remembering my dad talking about it; my dad was in publishing. He was talking about some guy who was struggling with writing. He said, ‘No wonder. He’s never read anything.’

“I think one thing is exposure to example. If your parents are good talkers, and they talk, that’s one thing. If there is a lot of reading going on, that’s another thing.”

“I was always interested in explanations. I’ve got a couple of papers I wrote when I was having a moment with anthropology grad school and they sound like me. There is just a little bit of humor and a lot of explanation and it’s grammatically constructed.”

Kevin describes himself as “borderline autistic” with a memory that is “highly associative.” “I am like those very old people you meet – whatever you say to them, it reminds them of twelve other things. In person, this devolves into long monologues about why Aunt Roxy’s picture was turned to the wall, and in what year the gas well in the front yard was brought in, but for engineering narratives with some history thrown in, it earns me a living.” Kevin has the kind of memory that folks like me would love to have, just so I would know where I’d last stashed my keys. He earns the kind of living that many of us would love to emulate; interviewing the best and brightest people in motorcycling, and travelling around the world to watch and write about races and racers.

One of the best articles in TDC is the interview with Kenny Roberts. I asked Kevin to talk a little about his experience with KR, who he indicated was also his most daunting interview subject. “Roberts is a funny character. He’s a very intelligent person and that’s why he was able to analyze what he did on the racetrack. But he had to have some other quality, which I can’t put a name to. He has always been able to think of something that he thinks he should be doing on the racetrack and to put it into his choreography.”

“Kenny tried to get Mike Kidd into road racing. Mike Kidd was so outstanding on the dirt. They had him at Daytona, practicing. Kenny would take him aside and say, ‘You are rushing these corners. I want you to think about this. Which is more valuable, to keep going at a high speed for another 17 feet at the end of the straightaway or to get a really strong drive off of every corner which will add to your performance all the way to the next corner?’ Kidd would say, ‘Yeah, I see what you mean.’

“Kenny would tell him, ‘What you have to do is to alter your line like this, get your turning done over here, and use the rest of the turn as a launch pad for really strong acceleration.’

“Kidd would go out and kind of get it. A talented privateer, at Daytona at that time, would turn 2:10—they change the course every year, so these lap times don’t make any sense—and Kenny worked him down to 2:06. I think 4 seconds, just by talking, is pretty good. Kenny would go to the hotel and Kidd would go back to 2:10.”

Kevin went on to describe that same tendency in other modern racers, “And I further would argue the reason some people have left the sport — like Luca Cadalora, John Kocinski, Max Biaggi, and many top people — is that they did not have that flexibility that Kenny and Rossi and a few others seem to have. As the nature of motorcycle design and, particularly, tires evolve under them they are unable to exploit the advantages of what is new and continue to try to set their motorcycles up so they feel as they have always felt. Ultimately, that becomes impossible and they have to give up. If they can’t get the cues that tell them what is going to happen next, they have no confidence.”

Kevin  offered sobering insight on the difference between writing about motorcycles and writing about sports cars and the economic challenge the industry faces, “It’s an interesting thing, how different a motorcycle magazine is from a sports car magazine. Sports cars have social standing. There is a class of dentists with 911’s who devour the latest tire shootout and they go back to the tire store and they have their Toyo tires taken off and they have Chen Shins put on, or whatever won the last shootout. Now they are cool. There is nothing comparable on the motorcycle side.

“Moreover, the [motorcycling] readership keeps getting older. It may be, as some propose, that motorcycling in the US was a one-time, non-recurring phenomenon. There was a huge bulge in the ‘60s and ‘70s and those people are now on their second or third marriages and, arguably, have their lives under control. They can go out and buy any motorcycle they want. And a lot of them have. Those are the ‘born again’ riders. The big demographic change that took place in the ‘80s and ‘90s, namely the evisceration of the lower middle class and the end of good industrial jobs in the US, meant that motorcycles moved upscale. So, an outfit like Ducati today is well advised to do what those Chris-Craft guys have done. Namely, to market products aimed at people who are not hurt by off-shoring or job loss.”

I saw one piece of evidence in Top Dead Center that Kevin rides a motorcycle, so I asked, “Do you still ride?”

Kevin replied, “No.”

“No?”

“Occasionally, somebody comes to visit with a new bike and I’ll find my helmet and have a go. In the 80s, I had a Honda Saber, 750, for several months. It was from the magazine, Cycle, and I rode it to Boston a few times because I was building exhaust pipes for somebody in that way. Normally, if I drove in my van, I’d be behind sixteen cars and there would be a motor home at the front or a local farmer, on two-lane highway. On a motorcycle, you can pass them all in an instant and see the needle come back past 100 as you pull into your own lane. I thought, ‘That’s thrilling, but I’m not a god. I could kill myself.’

“I never had any interest in adding my penetrating insight from the saddle. I did a little racing but I never got to be any use at it. And I don’t think there is any point in confusing myself with such information. I can get information from people who know. Of course, a little motorcycle is looking pretty attractive with $4 gas.”

Maybe we’ll see Kevin back on a bike again, if fuel for his van becomes expensive enough.

M.M.M.

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