Whenever you look at a photograph of yourself, you see far more than just a person and a place, solo or with other people. You see “context.” You see what’s behind the photo, hidden out of the frame and not shown; you see into time as well as space.
So it is with an old photo that surfaced in my file cabinet, a photo of me racing in 1967 aboard my then-not-quite-new 350 Yamaha at Vaca Valley Raceway, near Vacaville, California, between San Francisco and Sacramento.
When I looked at that photo for the first time in years, what I saw was not the “me” I used to be 45 years ago in my first season of racing. What I saw were the people who put me there. Look at the bike first: It started out as a bone-stock candy-apple-red YR-1, which my father and I bought together while I was still in college. We traded my 1966 Ossa 175 SE Sport in on it to a dealer near Sacramento.
At my first race, in May of that year, I rode the bike up to Cotati Raceway in Sonoma County, north of San Francisco, from my apartment in Berkeley. My friend Ted Crum, whom I’d met while working as a shop rat at University Cycle Center in Berkeley (Montesa and Triumph, shop owner Jim Cline) met me at the racetrack and worked hard to get the bike legal for the production class. I rode in a set of borrowed flat-track two-piece blue and white leathers, using engineer’s boots and work gloves. My father couldn’t attend, as he’d not been able to attend the previous day’s practice, due to his job.
I did pretty well—second to Ron Grant on another YR-1, sponsored by Al Fergoda Yamaha in San Francisco—and so I rode back to college with the second-place trophy bungee-corded down on the dual seat of the Yamaha, bedazzled by racing. I’d been taught to bump-start by Bill Judkins, who took pity on me as an obvious naïf and showed me the routine using his fast Suzuki X-6 as a demo bike. I learned the lines by following the fast guys, among them Grant.
Before the next race, the Webco one-piece leathers I’d ordered from an ad in the back of Cycle World showed up. They were cut for flat-track, not roadracing, but they worked. The AFM didn’t like black leathers, though, for what were called safety reasons, so I asked my girlfriend to help sew on some red vinyl stripes along the sides. She found the vinyl in a fabric shop, and, endlessly patient, she and her mother sewed black electrical tape (!) into the middle of the stripes then sewed the stripes onto the suit. Even more amazingly, she created roadracing gloves from normal leather gloves by sewing a cuff onto them and adding a zipper. Finally, using a photo I had of Mike Hailwood wearing a leather chin-and-face cover, she fabricated a vinyl version for me, which I wore when conditions demanded face protection, until I ditched the goggles you see here for a flat shield from Bell.
The helmet is an early Bell 500TX, which I’d painted and decorated. Just as I’d done the emblems on the side of the helmet and the fuel tank, which read “C&R Cycle World,” the shop in the Sacramento area that had sold us the bike and “sponsored” me to the extend of giving me a break on plugs and oil and such.
For racing, I added the Thruxton handlebar, sourced through racing pals in Berkeley, as well as the Yamaha factory flyscreen, which initially caused AFM tech inspectors to worry about unauthorized production-class mods, but which I was able to show was a standard Yamaha product. (Not so the first-generation Vetter fairing, which I ordered from a Cycle World ad; it turned the bike into a “GP” class machine, they said, so I pulled it off for racing.)
The seat, legal for the class, was fabricated on the steel base of the stock seat by another friend, John Oram, who, like Ted Crum, showed up at every race he could attend to help keep the bike running and me on track.
Add to these the AFM volunteer staff who showed up at every race to allow us would-be world champions of the 1960s to learn our limits and try to expand them in an era when most young Americans were tuning in, turning on, dropping out, or, if they were into racing at all, flocked to dragstrips or dirt-tracks.
So, hidden in this photo are hundreds of people, unsung except by the occasional poet who knows the truth about racing: We might think of it as an “individual” sport, but it is not. The racer might be alone on the track, but every rider is put there by a team, whether or not its members are visible in the pits or in a photograph. The message to racers with one-way reflective sunglasses is clear: Enjoy your ego trip, but remember how you got to the podium.