The races in Port Alberni were cancelled this weekend due to rain. If, like my buddy Harold, you spent 9 hours and $300 on gas to drive up there three times, you will be especially cognizant of the fact that there were no races this weekend. The weekend was not a complete write-off, however, it was just the most expensive hour of practice most of us have ever shelled out for! We did have a great campfire on Friday night. Since it wasn’t a double header there was no racing early Saturday morning, so we were all able to sit up and get a little silly Friday night. The fact that it was Friday the thirteenth may have contributed to many people succumbing to the urge to engage in some lubricated socializing. It was, by all accounts, a bit of an odd day. First and foremost there was Marla stepping on the bird! As she said over and over, more and more expressively as the night went on, “Who does that?! Who steps on a bird?!” As Marla the bird-killer wandered around trying to make sense of her squeaky tragedy, and Harold and Mr. Bradley compared notes on their truck breakdowns earlier that day, Mikey Motopsyche decided to break out his spurs and climb a 55 foot pole just for our fireside amusement. All in all it was a very fun and entertaining night. In the end, motocross isn’t always about motocross…sometimes it’s about the people, and the good times you have just camping at the track. Sometimes the races are just a bonus, only this weekend there was no bonus!
On the way home I started thinking about all my muddy moto memories. There is Motocross, and then there is Motocross in the mud. They are almost different sports, like Formula One compared to plowing a field with oxen! One is like poetry in motion, while the other is like my Grandmother on her walker…when she’s drunk! I happen to enjoy mud races, both to watch and to participate in; I’m a mudder, but I wasn’t always.
The race in Port Alberni wasn’t cancelled due to track conditions, it was cancelled due to silt run-off into the salmon bearing creek nearby. I have however, seen several races cancelled in recent years due to muddy track conditions. I’m not sure how this sits with me. Sure, it’s more convenient, but I was always led to believe that motocross was an all weather sport. Mud is just one more challenge. There have been some great mud races. Sometimes they are more spectacle than race, like Daytona a couple of years ago when Chad Reed’s bike quit on the last lap and Kevin Windham chugged by for the win, but sometimes there is intense slow-motion racing going on, and the intensity is amplified because you know it can all go wrong in a heart-beat. One of the best races I have ever seen was a mud race duel between Ricky Carmichael and James Stewart. One would get ahead, bobble, and the other would get by, then bobble, and on and on, back and forth for twenty laps. It was fantastic. Seeing the best riders in the world flailing away, and paddling through knee-deep ruts always makes me feel better about life somehow. It’s like seeing Superman waiting for his toast to pop…it reassures me that some things are beyond anybody’s control!
My first real race was at ‘Hully Gully’ in the mud. I wasn’t at all prepared for it. I spent all my time practicing on blue-groove, rock-hard, dry clay; if it was raining I stayed home. When the gate dropped for my first race in that mud it was all I could do to keep my bike moving forward. As the pounds of mud piled up on my bike, and the rain kept coming, soon even the gentlest incline became a nearly impossible climb. Eventually I fell and my handlebar was consumed by the mud. In my fatigued state I could not break the suction of the mud to retrieve my bike; I was done. I sat down on my bike and watched the rest of the race. I decided then and there that I would have to practice rain or shine.
By comparison, I went to the races that day with my friend John Scott. I have known a lot of very good riders in my day. I hung out with Andrew Belin when he was a solid top ten National guy, and I rode with a guy named Gordy Fisher. Gordy was a very, very good rider. I remember the day Gordy brought his baby boy, Derrick, home from the hospital, and I remember 20 or so years later following Derrick on his march to the 125 National Championship. I know where Derrick learned to ride! I also worked for Gordy’s brother, Jim, who was an ISDE silver medalist; he was also a very good rider. I even remember practicing with a kid who passed me on an RM85 while I was riding my RM125. I was mildly offended, but felt better when that kid, Marty Burr, went on to contend for the National title several years later. Of all these riders, though, and many more I have known, the best all-round dirt bike rider I have ever actually been lucky enough to call a friend was a guy named John Scott.
I have read articles in MXP magazine about Doug Hoover and Kevin Moore, riders from our era and area, but you aren’t likely to read anything about John Scott. He didn’t pursue motocross as far as he could have, but someone needs to document his short but stellar career. Doug Hoover would remember him. Aside from being pretty good friends, John was also the guy who beat Doug for the National 250 Senior Championship in 1981. John was primarily a trials rider when I met him, but he had just bought a three year old YZ125 and was riding it more and more, leaving his Bultaco trials bike to pine in the garage. That year, the year we both started racing, John was barely riding his ‘Bull’ at all. When the National Trials round came to Bailey’s farm just up the road from where we lived, however, John dug his Bull out of the garage and loaded it up in his El Camino. It was covered in mud, and the brakes squeaked from rust accumulation. The tires were several season’s old, and cracking with age. John rode out onto the course in his blue workman’s coveralls on his dirty, squeaky Bultaco, with his numbers articulated in electrical tape. The other Pros smirked as they looked him up and down. A few hours later no one was smirking. I think John dabbed about three times all day, and won the event handily. With virtually no practice, and without contesting the Western rounds, John finished number two in the country that year. Then he put his Bull away again, and came with me to give motocross a try on that muddy day at Hully Gully. We had both bought brand new RM125′s for the season. After my bike got stuck and I failed to qualify for the main, I watched John race in it. I think he dabbed less than three times! Within a couple of laps he was leading and just rode around with his feet up on the pegs for fifteen minutes. He didn’t even seem to get dirty, in fact he wore a white jacket just to show off! John won virtually everything in Junior that he entered that year, then won the National 250 Senior Championship over Doug Hoover the next year, as I mentioned. John was never quite as fast as Doug, but it was muddy the day of the Nationals. John was almost invincible in the mud. Once he hit the Pro ranks, life was different for John. He wasn’t one of those kids whose parents bought a motor home and a new bike for him every year. He worked, paid his own way, and got a little practice in when he could. He would show up, duel with Robbie Hodgson and Jeff Sutherland on his bone stock bike, and then drive home and go to work the next day. He was pragmatic, almost to a fault. Somehow he got the idea that earning a living was more important than racing. He went back to University, became a CGA, and after several nagging injuries he finally gave up the sport. He is one of the greatest Canadian dirt bike riders that no-one has ever heard of. I felt compelled to put a little of his story to print. On a more personal level, he is also involved directly or indirectly, in two of my most memorable muddy motocross experiences.
That first year of racing, while John was winning everything, I was at best a middle-of-the-packer. In the five or six events I got to, I failed to qualify for a main. The following year, however, I got a brand new 1981 RM125, often said to be the best production bike ever produced (for its time). I started going to weekly ‘Steel City Rider’ practices run by the venerable Jim Kelly. He would have us ride around barrels, starting the slowest riders first, and then letting the successively faster riders go. I got better and better. I remember the turning point in my riding career. It was a rainy, slippery day, and we were doing barrels with Jim. There was about a dozen of us there that day. I started second to last and John Scott started last on his CR250. I got by the ten or so riders in front of me, then John came by me. I tried to stay with him, and to my amazement I found that I could! In fact, my little RM seemed to be able to get me in and out of the corners quicker than John if I used his lines and braking points as references. Suddenly I realized I might be able to pass him back, then I did! Everything changed for me in that instant. I was not then, nor am I now, under any delusion that I was faster than John Scott; his bike just wasn’t as good for what we were doing, but my mental attitude changed none-the-less. That day in the mud, I gained a confidence that I took forward with me from then on. I learned to widen my apex in the mud, keep my feet up for balance, and finesse the throttle to minimize wheel spin. I learned this by copying John Scott. That was my first great muddy moto experience. The second one came a few short weeks later. It is both my best and my worst muddy moto memory and I will never forget it. I relive it often in my mind, going over and over it in slow motion. If only…
It was at Motopark, and again, it was pouring all day. The track was a mess, but I was prepared. I had been practicing in the rain, and I had brand new tires. I won my qualifier going away, then I went to my car and sat there to keep warm and dry waiting for the final. That was my mistake. I didn’t realize how the continuing rain was destroying the track. I didn’t realize the puddles had turned into lakes as the day wore on. I went to the line confident. I had passed John Scott in the mud in practice, I didn’t think there was a Junior around who could beat me in the mud. I got a top ten start, and half way through the first lap I could count the bikes in front of me on one hand. I widened all my apexes, and kept my feet up. I tried to keep all my momentum. Just after the first lap was completed, I took a wide line through a corner and floated into the lead. I opened up a pretty good margin pretty quickly. When I went by the finish line Jim Kelly, who was reffing that day, was signaling me to take it easy, but I felt invincible. As I came to one of the big puddles I shifted up a gear and attempted to wheelie through it. I accidently hit my shifter down so that instead of wheeling, all my weight was thrown forward. Then I hit the puddle, which was now a lake. I endoed into the pond, and ended up under my bike. For a brief moment I thought I might drown! It took me a minute to get my head above water, then more time to get out from under my bike. I saw the first bikes going by me. I finally got up and got going again. I was just outside the top ten, soaked from head to foot, and still trying to catch my breath. I caught up to the leader again, and attempted a similar outside move on him. He saw me coming though, and moved over into my line. My front wheel hit his back wheel and we both went down. He got up first, yelled some obscenities at me, and drove away. When I pulled my bar out of the mud my grip stayed in the ground, about a foot and a half deep. I attempted to ride without a grip, which I learned quickly was not a good idea. In the very next corner, when I pitched the bike into the corner, my hand slipped off the greasy handlebar. For one instant I thought I might be able to grab the bar, but as I reached for it my wheel was already tucking under on me, propelling the open metal bar-end upward toward my chest. I leaped off my pegs to avoid being skewered by the bar, and I face-planted, again, into the mud. My full-face helmet scooped up a football sized chunk of mud and crammed it into every inch of space around my face. I eventually pried it out, but I had so much mud in my eyes that I could barely open them. My goggles were jammed between my mouth and my mouth guard, making it difficult to breathe! That was it, my first chance to win a race had literally slipped out of my hands!
This weekend, when it was obvious the track was going to be a quagmire if the races went on, Mikey Motopsyche told me he wouldn’t race his kid in the mud, explaining, “You don’t learn anything in the mud”. That’s when I wrote this column in my head. Everything teaches you something, and racing in the mud teaches you as much as anything. Racing in the mud is almost a different sport, but the lessons are the same. They are just taught in slow motion, and they stick with you longer.