Posted May 18, 2015.
This page overlaps somewhat with the page titled “ZE. Rollin’ and Tumblin’.” That page had a short list of reasons why racers crash, with some of my own crashes used as examples. This page is more personal. It has ten of my more memorable crashes and, with one exception, the reason they happened and how to prevent repeating same. Some of these are described in other pages in this blog, and some are written up in my book “Racing the Gods,” and some are described here for the first time.
Crash One. Turn 11 Sears Point, 1973, on the Ducati Diana. You never forget your first crash. In 1973 there was a shallow pothole in the slow turn 11, the hairpin near the pits. I was trying to figure out a racing line through the turn and tried one that caught the pothole. The front tire lost grip I fell. It would have been a relatively simple, slow speed low-side crash, except the rider behind me hit me and knocked me out. As I watched the bike sliding away from me, I remember thinking, I’ve got to get to the ignition key and shut it off. The very next thing I knew I was being picked up by the ambulance crew.
“You guys got here fast,” I said. I was a little disoriented.
The paramedic said, “Yeah, we’ve been watching you.”
What? Did I look so bad that the ambulance crew knew I was going to crash? I felt insulted but held my tongue. It turns out that wasn’t what he meant. When the rider behind me hit knocked me out me a witness said I was motionless on the track. The ambulance was parked where the crew could see turn 11 and they saw the crash and my motionless body and started rolling even before they got the word from the race director.
It was a slow speed tip-over and normally I would have rolled along the pavement until I stopped. Being unconscious, I slid instead of rolling, and my cheap leather pants tore open at the knee. I lost some skin and picked up some gravel, not really a fair trade. One of my street shoes with the duct-taped-covered laces came off and I had bruised my big toe. They took me to the hospital where the doc shot my knee full of Novocain and took a hemostat and started plucking pebbles out.
The cause: Cheap “racing” tires from an on-line motorcycle parts retailer didn’t have good grip. The accident was made worse by my inadequate jacket, pants, and shoes. The solution: Get real road race gear from a reputable source.
Crash Two: Turn 2 at Sears Point, also 1973 on the Ducati Diana. I did find a set of used leathers, bought from a guy who was retiring from racing. They were a little big but fit well enough. I also got real road race boots and gloves. However, I didn’t replace the ratty tires and they bit me again. Exiting turn two, in the off-camber section, I got on the gas too hard, the rear tire lost traction and slid sideways, then re-caught traction, making the bike snap violently upright. I was launched into the air – I later learned this was called a high-side crash. I sprained both my ankles. Ow. It didn’t hurt much at first but as the day worn on the pain increased. By the time we left the track I could barely walk. The new leathers and boots did their job, though, and I had no road rash — just two badly sprained ankles.
The cause: Those cheap tires. The solution: I got some fresh Dunlop KR road racing tires from a reputable dealer.
Crash Three: Exiting turn 3A at Sears Point, again on the Diana in 1973. This crash has always troubled me because I was never sure why it happened. I had just passed another rider in turn 3A, at the crest of the hill, and as I started the downhill to turn 4 it felt like someone hit me. My bike was suddenly ripped away from me and I landed on my head and right shoulder. The impact was hard enough to twist my neck so that my left ear was forced toward my left shoulder. The result was a bracial plexis injury and a concussion.
I don’t remember this but later talked to the corner worker about the crash. When she got to me I was sitting up in the track-side grass, holding my right arm to my chest
“I can’t move my arm,” I told her.
“If you can’t move the arm they’ll have to cut your leathers to examine you at the hospital,” she replied. Hearing this I let go of my right arm and it fell limply to my side. When I said I couldn’t move my arm I didn’t mean it hurt too much to move it. I meant, literally, that I couldn’t move it.
My upper right arm was paralyzed. I couldn’t use my biceps, triceps, or shoulder muscles – the nerves that controlled those muscles had been stretched enough by the twisted neck to stop working.
“Did you get the number of the rider who hit me?” I asked her.
“We didn’t see any collision,” she replied. That bugged me. If no one hit me what was the impact I felt? What caused me to crash?
Below the elbow things worked fine. I could still move my fingers, hand, and wrist, but I couldn’t lift my arm. I could ride my street bike OK, I just had to place my right hand on the throttle using my left hand and I was good to go.
There was one area where it caused a problem. At work during lunch hour four of us got together to play cards. When I won a trick I would lean forward, use my fingers to “crawl” my hand to the middle of the table, grab the cards, and then drag them back toward me by leaning back. My partner asked me to stop. It seems she had been badly scared by the horror movie “The Hand” when she was young and I was creeping her out.
I got better quickly and eventually regained full movement in the arm. I was lucky. A bracial plexis injury can mean permanent paralysis if it’s serious enough.
After one year of racing the Ducati Diana and three crashes you’d think I was one of those riders who crashed a lot, but I really wasn’t. Once I wised up and got the right tires most of the crashing stopped. After the one year with the Diana I switched to a 350cc Ducati G.P. class race bike. That was a sweet motorcycle; I raced it for two years and never crashed once. This is a photo of it at Sears Point, probably in the esses.
Crash Four. Sears Point turn 4, 1976 on the Ducati 750 Sport. There are some crashes that cannot be avoided no matter how skilled you are as a rider. This one happened during a Supersteet race at Sears Point.
Mike was kinda a scary guy. He and his pals looked like Hell’s Angels types, in their dress, their hair styles, and their hard-drinking behavior. Mike, in spite of his appearance, was a fast rider on a Kawasaki 750cc triple, a bike known for high speed and poor handling. One day Mike and I were entered in the Supertstreet class, and at the start he jetted away first with me in 2nd on my Ducati 750 Sport. When we got to turn four, a nasty, off-camber downhill right turn, Mike’s Kawasaki spit him off right at the apex, and he landed on the track just in front of me. I ran over his legs then crashed myself in turn 5. I had an easy get-off so I walked back uphill to see how Mike was doing. Not too well, it turns out. Mike was sure his leg was broken, and he refused to let the corner workers move him. He lay in the track for the 15 or so minutes it took to finish the race then he let the ambulance crew pick him up. It turned out he was correct — he did have a broken leg.
Even though we never had anything to say to each other before this incident, it was a bonding moment of some sort. After his leg healed and he returned to racing we always took a few minutes each race day to chat. Mike was a pretty nice guy in spite of his outlaw appearance.
The cause: Hitting a fallen object. The solution: There is none, it’s just racing luck.
Crash Five. Ontario turn 6, 1976, also on the 750 Sport. I was racing the Sport at Ontario Motor Speedway when, early in the race, the right foot peg loosened and turned enough to start folding down instead of up, which made it hard to shift gears. I had gained some skill by this time and was among the lead group. When I got to the back straight I moved off the racing line and reached down and tightened the foot peg with my throttle hand, then kicked it a couple of times to get it good and tight. I then got back on the throttle and rejoined the race.
Several bikes had passed me while I was off throttle. I had re-passed a couple of them before the end of the next lap when the rider immediately in front of me crashed while braking for turn 6, a fairly tight right hand corner. He fell off toward the inside, landing right at the turn’s apex, while his bike slid towards the outside of the turn.
I was left with two options – hit the rider or hit his motorcycle. I chose the motorcycle. I hit it hard, thinking as I sailed over my handlebars, this is probably going to hurt. I rolled as I hit the ground so it didn’t hurt as much as I feared, but the Sport sustained serious damage. The front tire was flat and the forks were bent. Ow.
The other rider was unhurt also, but I couldn’t really be mad at him. If not for the loosened foot peg I would not have been behind him when he crashed, and I was the one who didn’t tighten it properly. After that I not only tightened the foot pegs carefully, I also safety wired them. They never gave me another problem.
The cause and solution? See Crash Four just above.
Crash Six. The Corkscrew at Laguna Seca. We didn’t have tire warmers in the 1970s. For races we got a warm up lap but for practices we went out cold. I used Goodyear racing slicks on the Ducati twins, and racing at Sears Point, Riverside and Ontario I found that you had to take it easy for about half a lap then you could start pushing a little harder to get heat into the tires. The first time I raced the Ducati Superbike at Laguna Seca, at the AMA National in 1977, I was following this procedure. When I got to the second half of the Corkscrew and levered the bars to switch from left to right, the bike slipped right out from under me. Bam! I was still going relatively slow so there was no real damage done, but I was puzzled. It felt like there was no grip at all!
Then it hit me (no pun intended). On the Laguna Seca of the 1970s the second half of the Corkscrew was the first right hand turn on the track (see the page “ZH. Tracks I’ve Raced” for a description of the original Laguna Seca track configuration). You went more than half-way around before ever turning right. The right hand side of the tire was still cold.
The cause: Cold tires. The solution: Make sure both sides of the tires are warmed up before trying to go fast.
Crash Seven. Riverside 1977 turn 6. This was at the Riverside AMA National. Before the Sunday morning short warm-up practice for Superbikes, some oil had been spilled in turn 6, the tightest turn on the track, and I crashed on some cement dust (or whatever that white powder was). It would have been no big deal, a medium speed low-side, except I tried to stand up before I had stopped sliding. Not a good idea. I fell again as I couldn’t keep my feet underneath me, and this time I whacked the back of my helmet hard against the pavement. I felt dizzy and slightly nauseous. These are not good signs, usually indicating a slight concussion. There was no more practice for Superbikes, so I went into a corner of the garage and tried to figure out whether I should race or not. I wasn’t sure I could ride safely. I told Dale what had happened and he told everyone to leave me alone.
About 15 minutes before the call to grid, I realized, Hey, it was time to go racing! There was a small jolt of adrenaline and I suddenly recovered. My vision cleared and the nausea disappeared. I remember getting up and saying, “Let’s get ready,” and we did. For the record a number of the faster bikes had problems and I got a third place behind Wes Cooley and Cook Neilson. In this shot of Victory Circle Wes is being interviewed, Cook is on the right and I’m on the left with the trophy girl’s arm on my shoulder.
The cause: That white stuff used to clean up oil can be slippery. The solution: Avoid it when it’s still fresh, and wait until you stop sliding before trying to stand up.
Crash Eight. Exiting the Carousel at Sears Point. In June 1978, just before the Loudon AMA National, Randy Mamola and Steve McLaughlin brought their TZ750 Yamahas to an AFM club race at Sears Point Raceway to do some testing. Dale and I were there with his Superbike Ducati, also getting ready for the upcoming AMA National. The AFM didn’t have a Superbike class so I raced in the Open GP class with Randy and Steve. The race was short, a 6 lap sprint race. When the green flag waved McLaughlin shot off into the lead with me right behind. Randy somehow flubbed the start and got off slowly.
Steve slowly pulled away from me in the first two laps but I still had him in sight. When is Randy going to pass me? I thought. Halfway through lap three he moved past on the short straight between the turn 6 Carousel and the turn 7 hair-pin. He moved quickly forward, catching up to Steve by the end of the lap. They started dicing and swapping places.
I noticed that with the two of them dicing for the lead they slowed each other down and I actually started gaining on them. I thought, it would be newsworthy if I could catch up to these guys and run with them. I had raced my Ducati head to head with good TZ750 pilots at Sears Point before, a tight and bumpy track whose twisty nature somewhat negated the TZs higher top speed, but not racers of the caliber of Mamola and McLaughlin.
So I turned it up a click. It was a Bad Idea.
I started pushing harder in an effort to catch them, and coming out of the Carousel on lap 5 I grabbed a big handful of throttle. The rear tire spun while I was still leaned over and BAM! I hit the tarmac. It was a fast low-side and I banged my shoulder, but the Ducati cart-wheeled and was badly damaged. McLaughlin also took a tumble a lap later, after he and Randy made contact in a turn.
The cause: Too much throttle while still leaned over. The solution: Don’t do it.
Crash Nine. Exiting the infield Pocono, PA. This was fourth race of the 1978 AMA Superbike season. The failure with the Neilson/Schilling motor at Daytona in March had been diagnosed and corrected and we were seeing a true 150 mph from the bike at Pocono, an unusual triangular super speedway racetrack with a rather slow infield section. See the page “ZH. Tracks I’ve Raced” for a track diagram and description. We couldn’t keep up with the fastest 4-cylinder bikes but we were the fastest twin and ahead of several of the big Kawasakis and Suzukis.
Clouds were threatening as we were called to the grid for the main event, but the track was dry and everyone was fitted with slicks. I got a decent start; the lap charts showed me in fourth place at the end of lap two. During lap three it started to rain on the far infield and the back straight. I lost traction and had a low-side crash in the right hander exiting the infield. Billy Addington, right behind me on a fast-for-a-privateer 1,000cc Kawasaki, ran over my bike and mashed the ignition that was hung on the end of the Kawasaki crank. I was unhurt, quickly up and pushing, trying to bump start the bike and rejoin the race, but the Ducati wouldn’t fire. Bill’s bike was dead, needing a new points plate. We sat and watched as the rain increased. During lap four the AMA red-flagged the race as by then there were more bikes parked flat-side down than still on two wheels.
There was nothing wrong with the Ducati. After we got back to the pits, on the crash truck Dale flooded the carbs with the tickler and the bike fired right up.
“Don’t you need to flood the carbs only when it’s cold?” I asked.
“Nope, it’s necessary any time you start it.”
Sigh. I should have known. Billy and I had been credited with only two laps completed. Most of the others had completed three. We were a lap down. Long story short, I did not finish the race even though I was able to make the restart.
The Cause: Not slowing down when it started to rain. The Soultion: Switch into a ‘smooth as butter’ style of racing when the raindrops start.
Crash Ten. Exiting turn 8A at Sears Point. This was, to me, the last crash of my racing career, since I have no memory of the crash in 1998 that left me paralyzed. I had suffered through a miserable 1979 AMA racing season on the San Jose BMW, and had tried racing my own 1974 Ducati 750 Sport at a some AFM races, but in 1980 wasn’t having as good a time on my old Sport as in 1976. Racing a six-year old bike, even one as good as the Sport, was not a formula for success.
Then I got a phone call from Dale. He had straightened out the problems that kept him out of racing in 1979 and he wanted to race again. We went to Sears Point with the 883cc Superbike. I was really excited, looking forward to racing the Ducati Superbike again.
There was some serious competition this time. My pal Vance Breese was racing a bike he called the Aluminum Steamroller, his race bike with a highly modified Harley-Davidson 1200cc Sportster motor. It simply drove past my Ducati through the start-finish area and in the straight stretch between turn 6 and 7. I was faster in the turns, especially in the esses coming down the hill from turn 7, but he had a good 5 to 10-mph advantage in top speed. I had to work hard, but I finally got far enough ahead of Vance to keep him from catching me at the start line or on the way into turn 7.
I got the white flag indicating one more lap. It’s embarrassing to crash on the last lap when you’re in the lead, so I slowed a little. I thought I had gotten far enough ahead of Vance, but no. He passed me on the brakes going into turn 7. Damn! I followed him through turn 7 and the little left-right wiggle just before turn 8, planning to pass him in turn 9 and try to beat him to the flag. At the apex of turn 8A, leaned over nearly to the maximum, I grabbed a big handful of throttle, and the rear tire lost traction and I crashed.
I hit the pavement right near the top of a downhill section. The bike and I parted company, but I started spinning and bouncing instead of just sliding. It was sky-ground, sky-ground, sky-ground, bam! sky-ground, sky-ground, sky-ground, thwack! as I bounced and tumbled down the hill.
I was spinning sideways like a barrel rolling and bouncing downhill. I had pulled my arms into my chest, but my legs were still slightly spread out. I tried to pull them together so they wouldn’t get bent or broken, but I couldn’t. The centrifugal force generated by my spinning was so strong my muscles couldn’t overcome it.
I came to rest beneath a bunch of old tires on the outside of the track near the apex of turn 9. I lay there for a while, assessing my condition. When I realized I was basically unhurt, just battered and bruised, I started pushing tires away. The turn workers showed up and helped me get out of the tires and on my feet. I felt slightly dizzy. That may have been the sign of a slight concussion or simply the aftermath of my spinning.
I was truly bummed out. It was easily the scariest crash of my career. The crash had been entirely my fault; I knew better than to slam on the throttle when still leaned over. It was simply a rider error. Poor Dale! He was away for 15 or 16 months, and on his first time back I trash one of his motorcycles. I apologized to Dale, and then sat in my van to think about things.
Something had changed, in a fundamental way. I wasn’t enjoying the racing anymore. If I was going to literally risk my life on the track there needed to be some major payback and I wasn’t getting it. I got out of the van and went and talked to Dale, and told him it was time for me to quit racing. He seemed to understand.
The Cause and Solution: See Crash 8, above.
These ten crashes were among the most memorable of my racing career. When I think back about it this list is, in fact, most of the crashes I had. There were a few more tumbles on the Ducati twins that are not described here, but not many. One on the Ducati Sport in 1976 and one on Dale’s Ducati 750SS in 1977, both at Sears Point, and one on the 900SS Superbike at Riverside in 1978. The rest have been magically removed from my memory after 40 or so years.