Latest blog from Todd Marella.
It’s Friday after work and a few of us are gathering at the Heap (@cycleheap) to ready bikes, drink beer, and swap a week’s worth of absurdities learned about our current state of affairs. Two of us are planning on racing the next day, 5 ½ hours away in Spokane, Washington…which is almost Idaho…and nearly Canada. Four days earlier, I had it in my mind that I’d be returning to the track, that I’d fallen in love with two weekends prior, by myself. Things changed quickly when I got a text from Korry Firtzpatrick (Sideburn 41 cover star) informing me of his change of weekend plans on Tuesday. Now, we were two, with the condition that I would split the driving with him. Deal. The next day, Chris Desanty changed his course and decided to go, and there were three.
While I’m on my knees swapping out my old chain for one long enough to accommodate more teeth on the rear, I noticed Eric, owner of the Cycle Heap breaker's yard, fiddling with his Suzuki, which nobody has seen him do in about 18 months, as it’s been that long since he’s raced. It’s a 1980 TS250 with TM parts, some custom chassis and bodywork, Bandit GSF400 front end (pretty rare in the States), a beautiful custom saddle by his wife Roxan (@rangeneedlework), and plastic coffin-shaped tank akin to that of an old CZ MX’er. It’s always been a one kick bike, and after a year and a half, that’s still true. The next thing I know, he’s doing tuning runs up and back in front of the shop… whut? The next thing I know after that, he and I are engaged in drag races, he to tune, and me to test the added two teeth at the rear wheel. There’s a Cheshire cat somewhere missing his grin, because when someone uttered 'Wait, is Eric going with us?' That’s all we got from him.
With more cans of beer than hours of time left before we had to be on the road, we managed to deplete all of one resource and most of the other while busily planning our first 'gig' after 'getting the band back together'. No sleep ‘til…Spokane. There’s a rock and roll joke in there somewhere, although Spokane does not rhyme with the popular powdery party substance found on horizontal surfaces of most tour busses. We agreed upon 4am meet-up at the Heap, leave by 4:30 and caravan together. What’s that about the best laid plans of mice and men?
The three of us waited upon the arrival of a very tired, and less than bright eyed Chris (@theironsociety) to get our show on the road. We pulled out of the parking lot at 5:15 with a 4 hour and 55 minute trip ahead of us. Early practice begins at 11:00, so that gives us 50 minutes of time to ease on into the pits and get ready.
Driving east on I84 while the sun is rising is quite dramatic and picturesque. It’s also blinding on a clear July morning…particularly one immediately following a long July evening finishing off all of the available beer.
As the story goes, 'What’s my name?' is a song on the the Clash’ first album, the self-titled masterpiece, which at the time of writing the early songs, included the services of Keith Levene on rhythm guitar and backing vocals. He maintains he wrote the song and gets credit, but Joe’s account was that all he had was a chorus when he brought it. Nevertheless, the song is a short sharp shock of the realities of growing up in a household rife with isolation and disillusion…for different reasons than mine currently, but 'What the hell is wrong with me? I’m not who I want to be…' are sentiments we all can relate to right now, aren’t they? I see the tune as an all-out audio assault against the tedious and the mundane, the normal, the banal, and the terrifying fear and uncertainty of what our future holds. 'I tried spot cream and I tried it all, crawling up the wall!' The cure? Flat Track racing, and a road trip to the northeastern corner of Washington as a destination for it.
Just shy of Tri-Cities, about half way into our journey, climbing a fairly long grade at about 90mph, Korry notices a deliberate , if not jarring downshift of the van, immediately followed by both of us noticing billowing of smoke within the back of the van. Like a NASCAR driver, he went from 90 to nothin’ in about 4 seconds, parked on the side of the freeway and began searching for clues under the van. The presence of automatic transmission fluid sprayed upon its underbelly, including the muffler (causing our smoke signals in the cab), we feared the worst. The 5’ dipstick revealed a full reservoir, and with that we limped it into Kennewick and ended up in Bay #1 at a Jiffy Lube for an inspection at 8:15 on a Summer Saturday morning. We’d already let Chris and Eric know of our travails, and to go ahead without us, with the hopes of catching up at some point. After good news from the guy in the pit below the van that it was probably just the pan gasket, and confirmation that we still had basically a full pan of ATF, we were on our way with quarts of ATF, and an agenda to take it easy, checking it regularly for the rest of the way.
It was nearly noon when we arrived, and found the other half of the Cycle Heap gang waiting. They were readying their bikes for the early practice, a three-hour session for anyone who wanted to pay the extra 20 bucks. It was hot, and it stayed that way until the sun went down. Everybody’s face in my camp was the same after their first practice session: like kids on Christmas morning. I couldn’t help but offer a little, I told you so.
Chris brought two bikes, both Panther framed. His first one is the Pursang that he built for the One Show this year, and his new one is the TT500 that he races in Vintage Open. After a couple of sessions on the Taco, he decided to let the TT stretch its legs. He looked really comfortable on it, and was passing people up through the pack, including Stace Richmond on his shit hot Superduke Hooligan, who highsided not long after trying to pass Chris on the outside of turn 4. He went down pretty hard and knocked the hide off of his elbow in the process. On the ensuing lap, in the same corner, Chris repeated the same highside, breaking his brand new gas tank. Attempts at JB Welding the hole closed proved fruitless, to our collective chagrin. One Panther down, but another bobbing buoyantly, awaiting recognition.
John Clayton is a long-time racer who rode a bike like mine (Yamaha MX250) back in the day. He is a good friend of Stace’s and now rides a modified FZ07 that sounds as mean as it looks. I see him looking my bike over pretty intently so I approach him to introduce myself. He proceeds to tell me that 'This was Pat Hays’ bike…I’m pretty certain of it.; As I’ve eluded to in the past, the frame is stock (’74 MX250) but modified. The head angle has been de-raked, and the cradle dropped by 'plugging it.' He also told me that he had one just like it, and that the work on the frames was done my none other than the Canadian frame guru, Led Szmek, the legendary creator and still fabricator of Panther Frames. Everyone who looks closely at the frame comments on the quality of the welds at the head and how it’s gusseted just so. John also pointed out the heavy steel left side peg mount, another Led signature piece of the era. Admittedly, I had a little pep in my step after the conversation telling Chris there is another 'Panther' in the Cycle Heap fold. It should be mentioned that John is also known for his legendary post races BBQ. On this night, we were treated to some of the very best lamb chops I’ve ever eaten. Not baaa-a-a-a-aaad, at all.
The racing was splendid, fast, frantic, and unpredictable…not unlike an early Clash show. A bunch of sweaty participants, at times banging into each other, slogging away at a common mission: escape the regular, and revel in the chaotic! Listen to the band wail out the chorus “What’s my Nay-ay-ay-ay-ayee-ame” and tell me it doesn’t resemble a pack of two-strokes screaming down the straights, zipping by, before diving into the turn.
The four of us from the Heap were signed up for the Vintage Two-Stroke class, making it six, with local racer Ken and a guy on a beautiful old Husky MX bike. Chris, Korry and I signed up for an additional class, they opting for Vintage open, and I for the 50+ Super Seniors. Many riders were in both of those classes, as it turned out, and some pretty quick customers. Our Vintage Two-Stroke class was the first one for each of us. In the heat, I remember getting a pretty good start, but chasing Korry down the back straight into what is turn 1. At some point, he went wide, and I dipped under him, not looking back, winning the heat. I think he and Chris finished 2nd and 3rd, respectively. Eric could not have been happier than to just be out there ripping around with his pals on a hot summer night. We have 18 months of recent racing that he does not. My competitive friends didn’t care for placing behind their “old” pal, heat race or no heat race. In our respective other classes, we each found ourselves in our own battles with riders further back in the pack, but having a ball doing it, and improving our game by dicing with more experienced riders on bigger four-strokes with loads of torque and engine braking.
The main event was a showdown among our posse for sure, as Chris and Korry had a score to settle. Settle it they did. With two laps to go, after leading for a good part of the race, I went a little wide coming out of turn 4, and I watched Chris go by me on the inside. It’s important to note that just an hour prior, Chris was all but dead due to his insistence that we finish all the beers the night before, the lack of sleep, and the oppressive heat we’d experienced all day. What’s my name? George Foreman in the fight of the century vs Muhammed Ali, wherein Ali christened the famous “rope-a-dope” strategy, lulling Foreman into believing he would win easily that night. But nooooooo… Chasing him with a lap to go, it was apparent that I’d not be able to catch him and was going to have to be happy with a second place finish for the night. Not so fast…with what seemed like 8 feet before the flagger at the finish line, the sound and sight of Korry appear in the corner of my right ear and eye, and in an instant, I’m on the lowest step of the box. It was close enough that we didn’t know for certain until they announced it during trophy presentations. He’ll most assuredly beat me again, but never like that. They say to race through the finish line no matter where you end up. I didn’t on this night, and he did, beating me quite literally by a wheel. Most importantly, the three of us ended up on the same podium, a Cycle Heap sweep!
My final race of the night was a hectic mix, of trading places each lap for the lead between myself and veteran rider Jim Monegan, back in the pack. I didn’t have the ability to pull out of the corners like the bigger four-stroke did, but I’d catch and pass him in the corner each lap. I was grinning ear to ear just to be out there. Korry and Chris each had their hands full in their class. Korry lowsided between 1 and 2, picking up his bike and rejoining the race immediately following the leaders as a now lapped rider. That didn’t stop him from raising his game, riding faster than he had all day. It was a treat to watch.
The Pro main was something to behold as Kody Kopp put on a clinic and gapped himself from the other riders, including his dad, who was in a battle back and forth with Wyatt Anderson, finally besting him for second in the last lap.
We spent the rest of the night depriving ourselves of sleep with beer, a bottle of scotch, and plenty of BBQ, swapping stories about our trip, and celebrating our collective victory of the trip itself. In the morning after breaking down camp and loading up, Chris and Eric headed back to Portland, while Korry and I went further east to visit his aunt in Cour D’Alene, Idaho. It was a lovely time seeing parts of his childhood as he lived there for a short spell as a kid, and meeting his aunt. I agreed to drive back, and after filling our bellies full of burgers, fries, and malts from Dick’s, it was a long drive, for certain.
By the time we pulled into my drive to drop me off, I didn’t know my name…gruelling? Yes. Worth it? Absolutely.
Action photos: Nathan Cochran