Senior Citizens Racing Vintage Motorcycles, Part 2

More insights from the senior class

You know the saying: Age and experience can often outwit youth and enthusiasm! This group of racers proves that quite often. Welcome to Part 2 of our “racing beyond your youth” series that asked racers at the New Jersey Motorsports Park round of the American Historic Racing Motorcycle Association (AHRMA) for a look into their passion for motorcycle roadracing. I hope their well-earned insight, including the good and bad of racing, pulls you to our sport with knowledge, awareness, and enthusiasm.

These 65-year-old and older racers have earned a place on the retirement couch but bypassed the sofa for a foam-covered seat and low-mounted handlebars. They aren’t trying to win the World Grand Prix Championship; they are lining up on racetracks across the country to revel in the thrill of speed, enjoyment of terrific people, and the tingling stress of competition. They’re hooked, I’m hooked. It’s a great and reachable undertaking if you’re looking for more from life.

Robert Brangaccio
Robert Brangaccio, age 74, #903Etech

I’ve been riding for 50 years and racing continuously for 25; I started racing in 1994 at the age of 50 and was hooked! I race a Ducati 250 single in 250GP and sometimes bump up a class to 350GP. Last year I ran in 10 races and this year I’ll compete in nine.

I prepare my own bike with the help of my friend and fellow racer. On the fitness front, I am naturally thin and active but do little in the area of fitness otherwise.

My challenges as a senior racer are the same as anyone. I am lucky enough to be in good health physically and can provide the concentration and focus necessary. My wife encourages my racing.

I try to not think about the cost! I have been using the same bike for years, so the cost there includes tires, helmets, and repairs like the occasional engine rebuild. The biggest expense is travel, gas, and hotels. Most races are 800 to 1,000 miles away for me; I probably spend $1,000 per weekend.

I have crashed five times with three injuries, the worst being the most recent, my collarbone. (My opinion is that crashing is also an expense you can expect.)

My advice is: Enjoy yourself. Be competitive but respectful of other racers. Go to school and pay attention. Pick the class that includes the bike you want to race. Sounds silly, but whatever you are racing, you will find someone out there to race. I don’t think one class is safer than another. The biggest mistake I see is not necessarily seniors, but you sometimes see aggressive racing which is beyond the ability of the racer. I enjoy both the track experience and the off-track fellowship/comradeship immensely.

John Concklin
John Concklin, age 72, #129Etech

I’ve been riding motorcycles for 56 years, racing for 46 years. My current racebikes are a 1978 Yamaha TZ750 and a 1995 Harris YZR500. I stopped racing in 1987 due to an AMA rule change and the birth of my second daughter, but resumed in 2007 after buying my TZ750 on eBay.

I compete in Formula Vintage and Open Two-Stroke and race an average of three times per year with AHRMA, two with HMGP [formerly Historic Moto Gran Prix] and do at least one trackday. I believe fitness is imperative in order to be safe and have fun, so I play tennis twice a week and go to the YMCA twice a week minimum. I don’t have a special diet, just eat a good breakfast and lunch; supper is somewhat sketchy.

I prepare my own bikes and my biggest challenge is getting help for the long drives to get to the tracks. For the five weekends I race, I spend about $3,000 annually, not including parts or repairs for the truck and trailer. Personally I like to camp at the track as it allows me to get an early start on the day even though it might add to the costs in terms of sleeping quarters.

My worst injury happened at Phillip Island in 2013. In practice I crashed heavily coming onto the front straight trying to stay with a local favorite. I hit my head when it pitched me over the bars in fourth gear; I’d say I’m still not back up to full speed on the track. My wife is less enthusiastic about my racing since my PI crash!

The biggest mistake I see applies more to the younger riders who ride like they are going to win the world championship at an amateur vintage race. I have seen and been victim of a rider on a small bike cutting off the front wheel of a larger bike and then having to run off the track to avoid colliding.

Not sure what to advise new riders on which class to choose…probably not Open Two-Stroke; perhaps look at the grid sheets and pick a class that seems to have fewer entries?

I roadrace because I love the challenge of going fast and the people involved with the sport. Roadracing keeps me going, energized and in shape. I advise new or returning riders to focus on three items: transportation to the track (vehicle and help); physical fitness; seat time on the bike(s).

Ed Bargy
Ed Bargy, age 72Etech

Nick’s Note: Ed was not racing at NJMP, but is the longtime AHRMA starter and brings significant insight to roadracing from his time at the Expert level and his racing school.

I’m on track about 10 times per year teaching my school (Ed Bargy Racing School), plus the occasional trackday. I ended serious racing for championships in 2000 but will race occasionally for the sport of it and to keep my skills up. I’ve been riding for 53 years and racing for 50. My current race/track bikes are a Kawasaki ZX-6 and Yamaha R3.

My 50 years of racing had a one-year break while I was in a body cast from a racing accident. In 1976 and 1977, I had two bad crashes that broke me up pretty badly. Staying in shape is important in roadracing. When I was in serious competition I was a runner and pumped some iron and rode my bicycle to stay tight. For your diet just use some common sense. For today’s pros physical fitness is extremely important.

I prepare my own bikes, until the electronics took over, but I still do all the mechanical work. Younger racers are my biggest challenge! Also there are the challenges of eyesight, arthritis, and my accumulation of broken bones over the years, plus my reflexes are noticeably slower; riding with experience and less testosterone helps avoid the need for fast reflexes in the first place.

I’ve watched as my per-race meeting costs have gradually increased. In the ’60s, I would check that I had about 10 “pounds sterling” ($14) in my pocket before I went to the track. In the ’70s, I could go racing with $75 in my pocket. This included travel and entry fees. In the ’80s, I would need a couple of hundred dollars. In the ’90s, I would need just short of $500.

My family approves for the most part. But they also accepted that racing is what I was going to do. I enjoy the competition and camaraderie with other racers and recommend any class where you are comfortable with the weight and power of the bike and can afford the maintenance. Here’s a general rule of thumb: A big rider should get a big bike, a small rider should get a bigger one.

For riders starting or returning to roadracing, get a physical with a coronary checkup! Set your mind that you are there for the sport, fun, and camaraderie, not to be the next world champion. The biggest mistake I see is partying too hard the night before practice or a race, plus dehydration.

Make sure your Medicare Part D is up to date.

When you get a leg over a bike, ride that b—h! Just keep riding!

John Stephens
John Stephens, age 71, #442Etech

I’ve been riding motorcycles since the late 1960s and racing since ’92; I’ve been racing continuously since then in 250GP and 350GP on a 250 Ducati. I race an average of six weekends per year.

Physical fitness is very important, usually my legs are sore after practice day. Although I'm 71, I still work for a living as the owner-operator of a motorcycle repair shop so I’m quite active.

In 2017, I spent $2,470 in pre-entries, $2,541 for hotels, and drove almost 10,000 miles. I bought my bike in 1981 and can’t say exactly how much it cost; I have my own pistons made at about $200 per and I use titanium valves at about $125 each. The big expenditure is getting the crankshaft rebuilt, which can go to around $500 parts and labor.

My wife is the only one who would have issues with my racing and she understands how much I love it; no problems there. I’d rather be racing than anything else. I’ve got a bad knee from a 1968 street accident and have had Lyme disease for the last three years. The only time I feel good is when I’m on the racebike. In about 1993, my Ducati’s rocker arm broke and my engine seized; I high-sided and hurt my back among other things. I had to be put on the bike and push-started for Daytona! In 2010, the bike seized and I crashed and lost consciousness, got a helicopter ride I don't remember, and woke up in the hospital. I wore a back brace for six weeks but felt okay anyway.

I think AHRMA has it together for new and returning racers. The best advice I could give is to pace yourself and your bike. There's a big learning curve when you start racing; a lot of street habits you need to unlearn and replace with new habits. Follow instructions and pay attention, don't think the tech guys will find everything—check your bike! You are responsible.

I can’t say I see seniors making any more mistakes than others; everyone makes mistakes. I don’t know the best class for seniors; I race in 250 and 350 because my bike is competitive in both classes. I think it’s run what you brung.

Last but not least, I am grateful to AHRMA (and United States Classic Racing Association) for giving me a place where I can have the best time I can think of.

John Snead
John Snead, age 65, #9AEtech

I’ve been riding motorcycles for 50 years and raced for seven years in the 1970s in the dirt, and I have been back in the game, roadracing for three years. I race a ’62 Norton Manx (Molnar Replica) and ’71 Norton Commando in a Seeley Frame in three classes: Bears, Classic Sixties, and 500GP. I’ve ridden motorcycles continuously since starting and my racing was interrupted by life.

I compete in over 50 races per year and only do some of the prep work on my bikes. I’d say my annual racing budget is around $70K.

Physical fitness is somewhat important to me but I don't do much. My wife feeds me all kinds of organic stuff but I still sneak out to Burger King occasionally. My biggest challenge as a senior rider is keeping my wife happy at the track. [Nick's Note: his wife Candy races too.]

As far as family approval, it depends on the weekend. Sometimes they approve, sometimes they very much disapprove. My worst racing injury was a broken fifth metatarsal.

I roadrace because it’s safer going fast. Nobody on the track is texting and driving. I’d advise new or returning racers to stick with vintage or smaller-displacement classes (500cc or less) and have not seen any big mistakes from senior riders.

Just get ready to smile a lot.

Ken Debelak
Ken Debelak, age 70, #97REtech

I started racing motocross in 1970 and raced through 1977 on Pentons, Maicos, CZs, and Hondas. Family and work came along and racing came to a halt, but in 1997,I went to AMA Vintage Days intending to get into vintage motocross and happened to walk through the roadrace paddock and watched some of the races. I was hooked. It took me about a year to get a bike (the 350 Honda I’m currently riding), equipment, etc. I took Ed Bargy’s race school at Roebling Road Raceway Track and have been roadracing ever since.

I run my 350 Honda in Sportsman 350/500, a Honda MT125R in Formula 125, and a Harris/Rotax 640 in Sound of Singles One and Two. I’ve got an additional bike I’m not racing his year: a Honda RS125 for Sound of Singles Three. Last year I competed in 16 races and this year it will be 24. For six or seven weekends the costs are about $10,000 per year.

Physical fitness has always been important in my racing and I learned that from my motocross days. Today I run 20 to 25 miles a week and stretch after running. I weight train once or twice a week and coach and play in senior Olympic volleyball tournaments. I watch what I eat but am on no specific diet.

I do race preparation for my bikes: oil changes, valve adjustments, suspension, and normal maintenance. I have a machinist in town who was a national number dirt-track racer back in the ’60s and ’70s, Charlie Sourthate (56), and he still races AHRMA dirt track. He bores my cylinders, ports my heads, does my valve jobs, welding, and manages to fix about everything I’ve broken.

To feel comfortable and competitive on the track, I need to maintain and improve my physical fitness and my mental focus on racing. That’s my biggest challenge. My wife has been my constant companion during my racing years and I couldn’t have raced without her constant support. We have changed one thing from our motocross days: We don’t camp anymore. We stay in hotels and eat out. My son and daughter are very supportive.

My worst crash was in the infield section at Daytona. I broke my collarbone and probably had a concussion. The wind had switched direction and velocity after practice. I hit my braking marker but was carrying more speed and overshot the corner, wound up tumbling, came to rest in the tire barriers.

I roadrace because of all the racing disciplines I have participated in, roadracing is the most mentally demanding. When you get in a good race with someone, there is no greater feeling…win or lose.

New or returning racers need to know that track time is crucial in getting your skills and confidence up to speed. Choose a bike with a good track record for reliability, e.g., Honda CB160/175, CB350. The Novice Production class is a good class to start; the initial costs are not that high. You see a lot of senior riders in the Sportsman 350/500/750 classes, the GP 200/250/350 classes. An alternative would be to enter Sound of Singles Three on a 390 KTM. One of the guys I pit with just bought one and it seems reliable, rider-friendly, with upgrades available as you improve. Not a vintage bike, but maybe fewer headaches which can lead to more track time.

I have been lucky to find the support of several other fellow racers. We pit together at each race. We help and look out for each other. If someone is having a bike issue, we all pitch in to solve the problem. Our wives are also very supportive. They keep us on track with all sorts of things, listening for the calls, make sure we’re hydrated and fed, cheering us on the track. Although roadracing is an individual support, it is this team support that goes a long way for a successful race weekend. Look around the paddock and you’ll see this scene replayed over and over.

Although the goal is to win, the enjoyment comes in the battle with a competitor. You have to be able to accept a win for sixth place just as much as a position on the podium.

Gary DiPietro
Gary DiPietro, age 69, #246Etech

I’ve been riding and racing motorcycles for 54 years with two years off for the US Army and a small amount of time off for injuries. I was racing a Suzuki GSX-R750 at NJMP in the Next Generation Superbike class, but my current racing stable includes a 250 KTM, 450 KTM, 560 KTM, 660 KTM, 1000 GSX-R, 750 GSX-R, GS 1000 Suzuki, 650 Kawasaki, Pro Circuit 505 Honda Supermoto, 700 SMR KTM, 560 Yamaha flat-tracker, 420 Champion Honda flat-tracker, 1962 Diana Factory Ducati RR, 1975 500 Ducati Panther, and 15 more! Yeah, I’m addicted.

This year I’ll race in 26 roadraces, four Supermotos, at least four motocross races, two flat tracks, and one hill climb, and last year was about the same, including five roadraces in Canada.

My fitness regime includes practice on a motocross bike plus two Advils.

I prep my own bikes and my biggest challenge is 25-year-olds on Ducatis! I’d say my annual racing budget is $35,000 plus. That includes entry fees, tires, fuel, hotels, travel costs like van fuel and tolls… This isn’t counting bikes.

As far as approval from my family—after 54 years they have no choice! My worst crash came at Laguna Seca and I’ve had a few screws, rods, plates, and pins over the years. I race because of my need for speed, and judging speed is probably the toughest challenge for most racers.

I’d point new or returning racers to AHRMA’s Sportsman classes.

Cindy Cowell

Cindy Cowell Passes


Midway through our first day of ChampSchool last Tuesday I heard the news that AHRMA Membership and National Roadrace Director Cindy Cowell had died. We had just come off the track and the news stopped us cold; we had spent time with Cindy at this very track a few months earlier. Her smiling face, smart-ass mouth, and undying enthusiasm and love for vintage racing and racers defined AHRMA for many of us.

A bunch of the YCRS gang races with AHRMA: myself, Brian Smith, Rob Cichielo, AJ Ciampa, Keith Culver, Scott Rybarik (and even more next year)…and Cindy helped us all. She helped everyone. She juggled a million things at every round but still had time for you. She could scold you for an infraction (trying to bump-start your TZ750 in turn 5 during live practice, for instance) but do it in a way that retained respect, friendship, and inclusion. Cindy Cowell was a people person who instantly called BS when necessary but was the leading member of the AHRMA welcoming committee.

I said a prayer when I heard the news. Not for Cindy, but for heaven, because when she walks in the gates they’ll know there’s a new boss in town and things better be right! —Nick Ienatsch