Memories of the Mile

A century of Americana played out on horse tracks at fairgrounds around the country.

Photography by Mark Wernham, Marc Urbano and Tim White

The Mile. Pile on the gearing and tighten up your gut. Imagine hitting the end of a 130-mph straightaway—eyes big as dinner plates, engine screaming for mercy and hay bales dead ahead—surrounded by a dozen like-minded maniacs packed tighter than a fat man's lunch bucket. Bar banging is likely. Together you pitch your 350-pound dirt-trackers sideways into a corner so vast you can't see its exit. And no one even thinks of letting off.

Welcome to dirt-track racing's toughest test—vehicular and testicular.

Dirt-tracking is a uniquely American sport, nurtured on our nation's multitude of county fairgrounds horse tracks. But like farm kids herding blue-ribbon heifers and hogs, racers were irresistibly drawn to the state fairs, with their giant mile ovals, crown jewels of the sport. From Syracuse to Sacramento, fairgrounds miles are steeped in dirt-track motorcycle lore, none more so than the Springfield Mile.

With due respect to Daytona, from 1937 to 1953, the Illinois State Fairgrounds hosted the most important motorcycle race in America, a madcap 50-mile showdown that crowned the national champion. Win Springfield and you were Number 1 for the whole year! The Springfield Mile traces its roots to America's first bike-racing boom; at the turn of the 20th century, fairgrounds mile races were all the rage.

For example, on Independence Day in 1911, "Cannonball" Baker on an Indian beat Merkel's man John Sink at the Indiana State Fairgrounds in Indianapolis while U.S. President William Howard Taft looked on! Unfortunately, economics and politics—rarely the racer's friends—conspired over time to make fairgrounds racing an off-and-on proposition. Chris Carr's breathtaking victory in this past September's Indy Mile was at least the fourth reincarnation of that Indiana classic, and one of its previous rebirths in the summer of '69 is a landmark in my own motorcycling life.

Clueless pups, my buddies and I arrived a full day early, slept in the 38th Street cemetery, then goose-bumped as the fairground's announcer hyped the night's big match race: "It's Joe Leonard versus A.J. Foyt in a two-wheel battle of the Indy 500 superstars."

Never mind that they raced Kawasaki minibikes, "Smokey Joe" was a motorcycling icon long before he became Indy Car champion. Fifteen years earlier on that very track, Joe won the Indy Mile en route to the inaugural Grand National Championship, the first AMA crown based on a series of points-paying races rather than a single victory at Springfield. To this aspiring Iowa dirt-tracker, Leonard in the flesh was tantamount to a devout parishioner seeing the Pope in person. That night, I made a life-changing vow: I would someday announce the Indy Mile. Sure enough, by 1975, I had parlayed poor dirt-track results and a bit of radio experience into P.A. gigs at the nationals, and I was on the microphone for Kenny Roberts' Indy Mile masterpiece.

The story is famous. Desperate to keep up with the all-conquering Harleys, "King Kenny" rode a two-stroke TZ750-powered Yamaha dirt-tracker, a shrieking hellhound of a motorcycle, wicked-fast but unwilling to turn. Roberts' death-defying solution was to change direction by bouncing off the hay bales at each end of the giant oval, simultaneously creating the longest possible straightaways for a bike capable of 190 mph on the banks of Daytona Speedway.

After knifing through the field, he caught the Harleys of Jay Springsteen and Corky Keener on the last lap, the latter recalling, "I heard that screamin' SOB coming and I knew we were f*^cked."

Indeed, Roberts banged the bales one last time, drafted past and won by inches. In the winner's circle, the right side of his bike stuffed with straw, he famously proclaimed, "They don't pay me enough to ride that thing."

Such feats inspired the legendary Dick "Bugsy" Mann to proclaim, "If I'd had Gary Nixon's eyesight and Bart Markel's courage, I could have been Kenny Roberts." That is superlative praise. Many consider the '60s, the decade prior to Roberts, to be the "Golden Age" of dirt-track, and the colorful trio of "Bugs," Nixon (the keen-eyed "Little Red") and courageous-to-a-fault "Black Bart" Markel were its biggest stars.

Among that triumvirate, Markel was special, a Marine Corps boxer-turned-tough-as-leather dirt-tracker who rode his factory Harleys to three titles in six years. And though he was no great shakes on the mile (the big tracks often rewarded grace and finesse while Merkel was all elbows and aggression), he triggered a geographical revolution that spawned the greatest miler ever.

Bart was from Michigan, which before him produced only a couple of dirt-track greats. But his stardom inspired a torrent of talent, and "Michigan Mafia" members have since won 200 Grand National races and 14 championships.

Revolutionary! The superstar of that lot was Scott Parker, who hailed from Flint just like the progenitor he called "Markel Man." Following in Bart's footsteps, Scotty became the most accomplished dirt-tracker of all time.

Parker's greatness is best measured by his mile-track prowess: equal parts courage, skill and racecraft. A dirt-track bike knocks a big hole in the wind, so mile racing becomes a drafting contest. For 24 laps, the leaders feel each other out, desperate to decide: Is it best to lead into the final corner then try to break the draft, or better to go in second or even third and ride the slipstream, busting past at the last second to win by inches? No one found those answers better than Parker. He won 55 miles, more than half his career victories and nearly double the total of his nearest rival.

But Parker was not the only precocious Flint youngster to benefit from Markel's inspiration. Between Bart and Scotty, there came Jay Springsteen, legendary competitor, fan favorite and subject of one of the great "what if" questions in dirt-track history. "Springer" broke through in '75 at Louisville Downs, an ankle-deep cushion track on which Markel had been unbeatable. When Jay took his Harley up top, cutting the strings on the bales and throwing crushed limestone halfway to Cincinnati, the railbirds took notice: "He looks just like Markel."

Sure enough, Springsteen won Louisville, landed the Harley factory ride and became even more dominant than Bart, winning half-a-dozen races a year and three straight championships.

But there was a problem. For years, Jay was plagued by a mysterious illness. He would show up feeling fine, set fast time and win his heat, but by the main event he was often puking behind the hauler, too sick to race. Doctors theorized that Jay's body was reacting to its own adrenaline, an ironic Catch 22. It took years for diet and medication to set things right, thus the "what if" question: If Springer had stayed healthy, how many would he have won?

At the onset of Jay's malady, Parker arrived in '79 to continue Flint's turn on the Grand National stage. Youngest Expert ever at age 17, he was heir apparent to H-D greatness. But Parker, too, had a problem.

Given Harley-Davidson's current success, it's hard to imagine that in the early '80s the company was so strapped that mechanical genius Bill Werner, builder of four straight Number 1 bikes, was relegated to tuning Parker's "factory" machine in his basement! Despite Scotty's prodigious talent, his first five seasons produced only four victories, and just when The Motor Company turned the corner, he encountered another problem: Honda.

Many believe vengeance drove Honda's decision to go dirt-tracking. Harley had won a trade judgment against Japanese bike-makers for "dumping" inventory in America, and the resulting tariffs dramatically increased import prices. Shortly thereafter, Honda stormed the only racing realm in which H-D excelled. They built a Japanese knock-off of the XR-750 V-Twin, but with overhead-cam four-valve heads (to this day, the Harley is a pushrod two-valver). Unleashed on the ultimate real-world dyno—the mile—the RS750 was a game-changer. Undefeated on mile tracks for eight straight years following Roberts' epic Indy win, the XRs managed only nine big-track victories in 39 tries from 1984–87, the reign of the Honda factory team starring Don "Bubba" Shobert, pint-sized powerhouse from Lubbock, Texas, and "Rocket Ricky" Graham, the incredibly talented head case from Salinas, California.

Snapped up by Honda after showing great promise on Harleys backed by his dad's beef jerky business, Shobert won twice early in '84, then punched out Lone Star State rival Terry Poovey after an on-track altercation. That's a misdemeanor by Texas short-track standards, but the image-conscious AMA benched Bubba for six races. Fearing for his new job, he came back with an amazing run, finishing first or second in 11 of the last 12 races and setting the stage for an unforgettable title fight.

Given its history, it is fitting that the Springfield Mile, postponed by rain until year's end, decided the '84 championship. The points leader and pre-race title favorite was Shobert's teammate Graham, winner of the '82 crown on Tex Peel's privateer Harley and the most naturally gifted dirt-tracker I've ever seen. Though haunted by bad habits, Ricky in his right mind was a wonder to behold and Springfield was his favorite track.

Tenth place would have guaranteed him Number 1 but Rocket Ricky went straight to the front, battling Shobert and Michigan Mafioso Ted "Too Tall" Boody in a breathtaking draft-and-pass derby. On the next-to-last lap, Boody and Graham hooked handlebars and Ricky crashed hard, apparently throwing away the championship. But when leader Shobert saw his rival on the ground, he flashed on the possible miracle, a come-from-behind title, and lost his concentration. Boody drafted past him to win by inches.

Meanwhile, Graham, astonished to hear his motor still running limped over and picked up the twisted wreck, grabbed the pretzeled handlebars with his broken hand and rode back to the flag, last man running and 13th-place finisher. His two precious points combined with the four Shobert lost by finishing second made Graham the champion by one point. Wow!

Disappointed but determined, Shobert rebounded, claiming three straight titles while simultaneously going roadracing. He won the AMA Superbike crown then suffered career-ending injuries at the '89 U.S. GP at Laguna Seca. Before hanging up his steel shoe, Bubba amassed 33 national wins, 25 of them on miles.

Having sufficiently whaled on Harley, Honda shut down its dirt-track team at the end of 1987, ushering in "The Age of Scott Parker." For most of a decade, Scotty had been the underdog, ferociously loyal to The Motor Company, never bitching about his equipment and earning huge respect from the folks in the grandstand. When his time finally came, he dominated the sport, winning nine championships in 11 years. And no one begrudged him a bit of that success.

The year 2000 was a dirt-track land-mark. On Memorial Day at Springfield, Jay Springsteen won his 43rd and final national at the shocking age of 43 and a record-shattering 25 years past his debut victory at Louisville. Across that same winner's circle three months later, on Labor Day at Springfield, Scott Parker's trademark victory cheer—"woo woo woo!"—echoed for the 94th and final time. Fittingly, the mile that crowned so many great champions hosted the swan song of both those Michigan legends. Hats off to you boys—and thanks, "Markel Man!"

As for Graham, he suffered a slow fade after that '84 championship thriller, disappeared completely for a while then worked his way back in the early '90s. Rejuvenated, he climbed on Johnny Goad's now-privateer Honda and made history in 1993, sweeping the summer holiday races at his beloved Springfield and in between winning a jaw-dropping nine of 12 races. What a summer! At the finale, he capped his third championship with his 12th win of the year, a record likely to stand forever. Sadly, Graham's newfound grip on life and greatness didn't hold. He eventually disappeared again and died in a house fire in 1998.

One of the few men to beat Graham in '93 was the durable Chris Carr. Fifteen years later, at age 41, he's still winning, and thus he is the thread connecting the current dirt-track generation to 100 years of history. When he first earned then lost a Harley factory ride, Carr responded by setting a new standard for privateer teams. And just as Parker played underdog to the Hondas, so, too, did Carr race in Scotty's shadow, winning just one title during his rival's run of nine, then emerging to add six more. But this bit of math cannot be ignored: Chris has scored more than 5000 points in his career but he lost four championships to Parker—1991, '92, '94 and '98—by a combined total of seven points! What if...what if...

Add to Carr's seven crowns (which could so easily have been 11) this superlative achievement: In 2006 at Bonneville, he rode Denis Manning's streamliner past 350 mph to break the two-wheel land-speed record, a stellar addition to an already-impressive résumé!

Let's close this paean to the mile-track heroes with my all-time favorite and one more Springfield story. Jim Davis' life spanned the history of motorcycle racing. Born in 1896, he was a factory Indian rider at age 19, a contemporary of Cannonball Baker and winner of the first AMA-sanctioned race, on a mile track in Toledo, Ohio, in 1924. Married on the eve of the 1918 Springfield Mile, he then won the race. And 80 years later, at age 103, he came back to Springfield for the inaugural Dirt Track Hall of Fame Race, accompanied by every living rider who had previously carried Number 1.

Race day was blazing hot and I was rushing to the stage to introduce the past champions when my radio crackled, the message like a knee to the nuts: "Jim Davis is having a heart attack."

It was too horrible to contemplate. Jim came to Springfield at my insistence; I wouldn't take "No" for an answer. Now here he sat, slumped over a table, head on his hands in the sweltering heat, barely breathing. The wave of guilt nearly made me vomit.

"Nothing you can do here," the medics insisted. "Better get on with the show."

And so we did, racing in Jim's honor. Scotty Parker claimed the biggest purse of his storied career, then I hauled ass for the Hilton, frustrated that I couldn't get an update on Jim but obligated to organize the post-race banquet. I was greeted by a shocking sight, Jim Davis himself smiling up at me from a front-row seat, victim not of a heart attack but of heat prostration. Cooled down, sharply dressed in anticipation of his Hall of Fame induction and grinning ear-to-ear, Jim couldn't wait to fill me in on his hospital visit. "The doctor told me I had the highest body temperature of anybody they've ever admitted," he beamed. "I'm 103 years old and still setting records!"

God love you, Jim Davis. And long live mile dirt-track racing.

2008 Indy Mile AMA Pro Flat Track Grand National motorcycle race

2008 Indy Mile AMA Pro Flat Track Grand National motorcycle race

2008 Indy Mile AMA Pro Flat Track Grand National motorcycle race

2008 Indy Mile AMA Pro Flat Track Grand National motorcycle race

2008 Indy Mile AMA Pro Flat Track Grand National motorcycle race

2008 Indy Mile AMA Pro Flat Track Grand National motorcycle race

2008 Indy Mile AMA Pro Flat Track Grand National motorcycle race

2008 Indy Mile AMA Pro Flat Track Grand National motorcycle race

2008 Indy Mile AMA Pro Flat Track Grand National motorcycle race

2008 Indy Mile AMA Pro Flat Track Grand National motorcycle race

2008 Indy Mile AMA Pro Flat Track Grand National motorcycle race

2008 Indy Mile AMA Pro Flat Track Grand National motorcycle race

2008 Indy Mile AMA Pro Flat Track Grand National motorcycle race

2008 Indy Mile AMA Pro Flat Track Grand National motorcycle race

2008 Indy Mile AMA Pro Flat Track Grand National motorcycle race

2008 Indy Mile AMA Pro Flat Track Grand National motorcycle race

2008 Indy Mile AMA Pro Flat Track Grand National motorcycle race

2008 Indy Mile AMA Pro Flat Track Grand National motorcycle race

2008 Indy Mile AMA Pro Flat Track Grand National motorcycle race

2008 Indy Mile AMA Pro Flat Track Grand National motorcycle race

2008 Indy Mile AMA Pro Flat Track Grand National motorcycle race

2008 Indy Mile AMA Pro Flat Track Grand National motorcycle race

2008 Indy Mile AMA Pro Flat Track Grand National motorcycle race

2008 Indy Mile AMA Pro Flat Track Grand National motorcycle race

2008 Indy Mile AMA Pro Flat Track Grand National motorcycle race

2008 Indy Mile AMA Pro Flat Track Grand National motorcycle race

2008 Indy Mile AMA Pro Flat Track Grand National motorcycle race