From the Stands : The Rolling Thunder Show
by T.M. Roe
The Rolling Thunder Show. Let that sink in for a minute. Now some of you just stopped reading and thought this is not what I was looking for here. Think about it. When was the last time you made it to a Grand National dirt track race…if ever? If it’s been a few years you had better read on.
Every year Daytona rolls around and kicks off a new season and some of us tell ourselves that this is the year we’re going to a few races. But alas, some noble cause–a new porch, that unavoidable family reunion, maybe even that antique show your wife just can’t miss–stops us cold in our tracks. Well, shake yourselves, you’re not getting any younger and maybe someday if the AMA doesn’t wake up and smell the coffee it will all be gone and you will have missed some of the most incredible racing on earth! Oh sure, you say you go to a lot of other races maybe a Supercross or two or even an occasional road race. Now let’s get one thing straight right now. By no means am I trying to convince anyone not to go to these races, I do it myself.
Take Supercross. I try to attend a couple of events a year and I’ve even gotten over having beer spilled on my family and me. It’s just what happens when you have that many people stuffed too close together for that long. The fights don’t bother me as much as they used to either. But as I look around the stadium I am seeing fewer and fewer motorcycle fans. This bothers me. I know we’re trying to grow the sport by attracting larger crowds, in more cities, and bring in big-time TV money so that we can start to pay these young professionals what they are worth. But it just seems very strange to me that I am sitting there surrounded by many of the same people who were in the stands last week for the big Mud Bog show. I know that everyone who goes to a Tractor Pull doesn’t own a tractor and I am almost certain that only a small fraction of the people in the stands for a NASCAR race have ever actually driven any type of race car. But these people are starting to turn me off.
Maybe that’s why I always come back to dirt track. The fans actually root for their favorite rider, whether he finished on the podium or misses the main. They cheer for their home state riders, win or lose. They are patient people who will wait through any delay from rain and fog to tournedos. (Just ask Mike Kidd about the one that hit the short track in Topeka the night before the national. ) These people will wait out anything. These folks are true fans of the sport and pretty darn nice to be around too.
I remember my first mile event–the San Jose Mile in the spring of ’75. A few of us were hanging around the bike shop and heard Tom Scales and Max Switser (two desert racing legends) talking about The Mile and how it was the race to see. So a few of us threw some gear into a borrowed van, mooched some gas money and headed off to the Santa Clara County Fairgrounds. I remember walking into the racetrack and seeing the track being wheel – packed by about 20 cars, trucks and vans. It was like foreplay. We sat and watched patiently. We heard people talking in the stands about their favorite rider and who they thought would win. The bikes were lined up single file at the track entrance for practice. At the front of the line sat Gene Romero’s Yamaha with that big number 3 on the plate. When they opened that gate Gene eased his Yamaha onto the front straight and picked up the front wheel and carried it all the way into the first turn. The crowd went absolutely nuts! Max and Tom told us that to really get a feel for the speed we should go stand in turn one. So off we went. The first bike that came at us looked like he had no intention of turning left. Only at the last second did he pitch it sideways and scare the crap out of all of us. We heard the guy next to us tell his buddy, “That’s Kenny Roberts. He does that every lap”. Those road racers over in Europe never had a chance.
That race will always be special to me. On that day we saw Rex Beauchamp receive a beautiful trophy for setting the fastest qualifying time. We also saw the King’s grip on the Grand National title (which he had held for two years) begin to slip. His Yamaha was at the end of its development cycle and the XR-750 Harley was just starting to find its legs. We watched Gary Scott begin his march toward the number one plate after years of being the bridesmaid. We also saw a young factory – Harley teamster by the name of Greg Sassaman from Macon, Georgia win his heat race over the likes of Gene Romero and the King himself. And on that special Sunday in May, he beat the best dirt trackers in the world and won the San Jose Mile. He also etched himself permanently in the mind of an 18-year-old from Las Vegas. It was the first time that I could really see and feel what Grand National racing was all about. I was hooked.
Want to meet your heroes? Go to Springfield or Del Mar. You will most likely run into anyone from Gary Nixon and Mert Lawwill to Dave Aldana and Jim Rice, hell even “King Kenny” has been known to show up at his old stomping grounds from time to time. And these guys all seem genuinely interested in listening to you and are never too busy to have a picture taken or to sign an autograph. Need a great picture of one of your heroes and maybe even a good story to go along with it? Stop and see Dan and Vicky Mahony. These folks have about a million photos and a great story to go with each one. Go to a Supercross and just see if you run into Bob Hannah or “Jammin” Jimmy Weinert, or even see a picture of them!
Have you purchased a Supercross program lately? It used to be that when you bought a souvenir program it became a treasured keepsake. Being the sick person that I am, I have every program to every race that I have ever been–save one. (If anyone out there has a program from the Ascot TT in ’73 maybe you could help me stop those little voices in my head!) Anyway, the programs you buy these days are now one size fits all. Not even the pictures are current. Every page looks like one big advertisement. What happened to the days of event programs with updated point standings and pictures of the riders on the bikes that they actually rode or even day sheets? What’s the matter with these people? Are they afraid that they might get stuck with a couple hundred leftovers? If you want a program that’s worth keeping, look at the ones sold at the dirt track races. They will almost always feature the rider on the cover that won the event last year, have reasonably up-to-date stats, articles and rider profiles. Maybe these dirt track promoters haven’t figured out yet that they could save themselves millions if they would just print up one giant generic, out-of-date, uncollectible, ad book. But from my point of view I hope that they continue to provide these one-of-a kind keepsakes.
I feel fortunate to have been to Ascot the night Aldana’s bike caught fire. I saw King Kenny manhandle the TZ at San Jose and I hope to see Scotty win number 100. I’m a lucky guy, but hey it’s all about getting off the couch, grabbing some buddies and taking a road trip. By now you can tell I’m hooked. These guys are my heroes. I have a restored dirt tracker in my living room given to me by my best friend. I even attended Danny Walker and Chris Carr’s riding school (worth every penny). I may never know how it feels to peek up from behind that numberplate and see turn one flying at you at 130. But I can stand in turn one and feel the ground shake. And I can talk to Springer in the pits and ask him how it feels.
I know that things are pretty screwed up right now with Project 2000 blah blah blah…. I wish we had more TTs and short tracks–maybe even a MARS race with right and left handers thrown in. But hey, as long as there are guys like Dave Despain growing the sport and promoters like Steve Moorhead and Davey Duralle (don’t give up, Davey) this thing might have a chance. But for now you can still go see some of the greatest racing on earth with some of the most knowledgeable fans at some of this country’s greatest tracks. And at a reasonable price. So if you are planning this years road trips, try and include a dirt track or two. You won’t be sorry. Now, grab some buddies and go, ’cause these guys are good.