Fatal Bumper-Car Accident Lends Insight To Future

Fun turns fatal at the county fair

The above photo is the last known picture of Rossi’s 2001 championship-winning Honda NSR500, snapped at the last race of the season. Then the bike disappeared, until Ienatsch spotted it last week.

Many of you saw the news of the fatal Cook County Fair bumper-car incident where a group of motorcycle riders paid $1.50 to drive the electric bumper cars for 10 minutes. From the Cook County Chieftain newspaper: "A group of five crotch-rocket pilots joined the usual mix of kids for a 10-minute bumper-car session at the Cook County Fair last night. At the seven-minute mark a fatal accident occurred when one of the motorcyclists accidentally touched his head against the electrified floor of the bumper-car arena, immediately shocking himself with 5,400 volts."

That was me. I was trying to get the bumper car to turn better by using my body. Apparently I lost my balance and my heart was shocked to a standstill with 5,400 volts, but I don’t remember it much. All I know is that I woke up in a town called Purgatory in a long line waiting to talk to “Pete,” according to his name tag.

The voltage spike killed my cell phone, but this above Pinterest picture was pretty close to the gates I saw, minus the long line and Pete.

By the time I reached Pete, he was tired. I gave him my paperwork and he mistook the capital "I" (i) of my last name for a lower-case "l" (L). This happens all the time. "Nick Lenatsch, Nick Lenatsch…" he muttered to himself. "I can't find any naughty information on you, so please come in." He swung open a big gate, clapped me on the back, and noticed my "I'd rather push my motorcycle than drive a car" T-shirt and said, "Motorcycle rider? Most all you riders make it up here. Take a left here and follow the signs. The Boss is usually over there anyway."

I didn’t need the signs much because I could hear a bike revving, and as I got closer it sounded more and more like a multi-cylinder two-stroke getting warmed up. I had heard it a thousand times at racetracks because nobody wants a cold seizure during the first lap on a stroker. I turned the corner to finally see the bike. Imagine my shock when I came face to face with God and Jarno Saarinen!

Jarno, still fast and friendly.

I had never met Jarno or God, but they are both very recognizable. God was holding his beard away from the spinning dry clutch as he crouched next to what appeared to be Valentino Rossi's championship-winning 2001 NSR500. Jarno was on the other side, blipping the throttle and the thing sounded tight and right.

They both looked over and waved, so I said hello and added, “Man, sounds like you’ve got the jetting perfect!”

God laughed and shook his head. “No, up here everything is fuel-injected.” I then noticed the laptop in Jarno’s lap.

“But I thought fuel-injection limited a two-stoke’s ability to rev,” I exclaimed.

Jarno shook his head again. “That excuse is just being put forth by the four-stroke manufacturers who have invested so much time and money in a weak, flawed product that is slow…and difficult and expensive to rebuild.”

“But what about emissions?” I countered.

God reached up and punched the kill switch, shutting down the four-cylinder 500. In the sudden silence I could hear another stroker running on what sounded like a dirt track. The bike wasn't being shifted, just run to redline in a single gear then shut-down for the corner. I could hear the engine working as the tire spun on the exits and we all listened for a minute because it was truly heavenly music. God saw me listening and explained, "Oh, that's Nicky Hayden and a bunch of his buddies—jokers like Ricky Graham. Nicky started dirt tracking on our two-strokes, and, man, is he glad to be back on what he calls "a real engine." They've been riding all morning, huh, Jarno?"

Jarno nodded. “Yep, those guys have just about worn out that track! But about emissions,” he said, getting back to my question. Jarno spun two quick-release fasteners and the rear tailsection flipped up, exposing a large carbon-fiber box. And it smelled delicious.

“The secret to emissions is the oil we premix,” explained the Finnish rider. “God developed a BBQ sauce premix oil and we route the exhaust into this box. Each racer has to carry a 3-pound rib-roast during the race. He or she can opt for a 1-pound rib-roast, two chicken breasts, and a two pieces of corn on the cob, but you get the idea. So our emissions are perfectly clean, smell wonderful, and provide a great after-race meal!”

“And who doesn’t love a delicious meal after beating Jarno?” I spun around at the sound of the English accent, and there sat Barry Sheene and Mike Hailwood, both laughing. I couldn’t believe it.

Before I could think, I blurted out, “After all your shenanigans, they let you in here, Barry?” His wild playboy life was well documented, yet here he was, in heaven.

“They did,” he answered. “Almost all motorcycle riders get to heaven.”

“So maybe there’s hope for Kenny Roberts Senior then?” I asked.

“Oooh, I don’t know if I’d go that far.” Hailwood looked skeptical too, and God gave a little shake of his head as if to say, “Dat boy’s pretty crazy.” But then he added, “We might have some room for KR… After all, somebody’s gotta school Revvin’ Kevin Rentzell and the boys.”

But then I was distracted by the bikes Sheen and Hailwood were sitting on: a Britten and a Czysz. I’ve been lucky enough to ride them both, but these models looked different and I hurried in for a closer look. Sure enough, big fat expansion chambers signaled two-stroke engines in each bike. “What the hell?” I exclaimed.

“Okay, watch your language,” Hailwood said with a furtive glance at God but then continue,. “John and Michael never wanted heavy four-stroke engines in their chassis, so now they have a chance to do these bikes correctly. John built a 800cc V-twin two-stroke and Michael did his offset inline-four trick to create a 990cc 5-degree V-4 smoker.”

“They’re both here?” I asked.

“Oh, yeah,” God confirmed. “They’re thick as thieves and have a shop at the track.”

“You have your own track?”

God looked at me and shook his head at my silly question. He pointed to his “God” name tag and I blushed, apologizing, “Sorry, just a bit overwhelmed.”

He continued. “The track was easy. I took Elkhart Lake, Mid-Ohio, Barber, and Laguna Seca and combined the best parts of each. Jarno insisted on three corners from Spa, the final turn from Monza. Kids like Tommy Aquino and Dane Westby have never ridden those European tracks, so they figuratively and literally are in heaven. Of course, we took that silly add-on chicane out of Elkhart.”

“Yeah,” piped in Barry. “Remember Marco’s reaction when you showed him videos of that chicane?”

“Simoncelli?” I asked.

Barry nodded. “Yep, he couldn’t believe they ruined the kink at Elkhart Lake with that chicane and about had a heart attack when he saw what Road Atlanta did to the Gravity Cavity. Marco has the lap record here so far, on the Czysz V, and has led us to victory in the series.”

“You have a racing series?” I had turned back to God.

He was nodding and smiling. “Yes, we do. Four times a year we travel south to Hell and run on their track against their best. Hell’s track is made up of the pavement from the old Nelson Ledges and the retaining walls from Watkins Glen with the weather of Willow Springs in August and the neighbors of Laguna Seca. Their team does a lot of cheating, quite a bit of attempted nefariousness. We also race here four times a year.”

“How’s it going?”

“Oh, we’re undefeated since the series began in 1907.”

“Wow, congratulations,” I gasped. “That’s amazing. And it’s because good always triumphs over evil, right?”

Everybody laughed! “No,” answered God. “They’ve only got normally aspirated four-strokes in Hell.”

God let me ride Rossi’s NSR back to the track shop where I reunited with Britten and Czysz. They swept me into the work area and each still possessed that childlike excitement that had been so unique when I first met them on Earth. Merlyn Plumlee had an engine apart on the bench and then Nicky rolled in his stoker dirt tracker and gave me a dusty hug.

“How is that thing?”

“Man,” he drawled, “it’s the real deal. I don’t have any regrets, but I’d sure like to run this thing at Del Mar. My dad would tune it and we’d kick Tommy’s butt.” Trademark Nicky Hayden smile.

nick's mom and dad on a motorcycle
Dad giving Mom a ride on his Kawi 500 stroker when on Earth.Photo: Nick Ienatsch

By this time, God, Jarno, Sheene and Hailwood had joined us and they started talking about how God’s fuel-injected two-strokes would have been game-changing on Earth.

“Do they have traction control?” I asked as I examined one of the race Brittens.

“No,” God answered. “Traction and wheelie control were relegated to Hell’s team.”

“Thank God,” Jarno blurted. Then blushed and apologized to God. Everyone laughed when He answered, “You’re welcome.”

I wasn’t laughing and God saw it. “What’s wrong?”

I turned to him and asked the question that had been on my mind since Pete waved me through the gate. “My dad, Bill Ienatsch, died a year ago… Do you know of him?”

“Is that how you pronounced Bill’s last name?” Jarno asked. “I always wondered. Yes, Bill has re-engineered the wash racks and completely evolved the waxing and polishing systems we use, including changing us from a liquid wax to a paste carnauba. He was in shock because our wax-removal clothes were synthetic, so now it's all-cotton diapers only. He freaked when he found the top loose on a can of brake fluid and lectured us about hydroscopicity or something. Man, that guy sure likes things clean. He and Schwarzi—Larry Schwarzbach—are either cleaning something or out riding.”

I was nodding and smiling. “So he really is in heaven. Where is he now?”

“He’s at lunch at our version of Salt Lake City’s East Canyon, one of your dad’s favorite rides… Except up here there’s no gravel, cops, or oncoming traffic texting selfies,” Jarno continued. I could see Jarno and my dad got along well.

“What’s he on?”

“We fuel-injected his Walter Wolf 500 Gamma, the one with the Lance Gamma pipes… Oh, yeah, we made it electric start too, put 17-inch wheels on it, got him his first set of slicks.”

Suzuki GT750 static side view
He would then move to a GT750 Suzuki and started roadracing an RZ350 Yamaha at the age of 53, just before he picked up this Walter Wolf 500 Gamma.Photo: Nick Ienatsch

But God had walked closer to me. “Nick, did you say your last name was Ienatsch or Lenatsch?”

I gulped nervously, realizing my mistake. “Ienatsch.” I lie all the time, but it seemed impossible to lie to God right there in heaven.

God pulled an iPad out of his coveralls.

He double-checked something on the iPad then gripped my arm firmly. “Sorry, son, you’re not supposed to be here.” He quick-walked me over to a previously invisible membrane and threw me through it, yelling, “You’re going back to Earth for a little while longer, and then I’m afraid you’re going to be racing four-strokes with traction and wheelie control after that!”

As I tumbled through the atmosphere I screamed back up to God, “Wait! Pete and Barry said most motorcyclists get into heaven!”

Through the clouds I heard God’s voice reply, “Yeah, but you’re a journalist!”

I landed with a thud on the bumper-car arena floor with a sweating EMT kneeling over me pumping my chest. I could feel the burn on my forehead as his sweat dripped into the fresh wound. Kids were gathered around and somebody said, "He ain't no Marc Márquez. He didn't drag his elbow until after his forehead hit the floor." But that hurtful statement hardly registered. All I could think about was: I better race Rusty Bigley's Spondon TZ750 as much as possible before I die!

nick riding yamaha tz750 track action
Happiness. On Earth and apparently waiting in Heaven, but fuel-injected.Photo: E-Tech

More Next Tuesday!