Cafe Racer Retrospective: Ol’ One Nine Seven

When we were shunted off the track at one hundred and forty miles per hour, I knew I was going to die…

gogo1T.jpg
“Gogo”, my beloved 1995 Ducati 900SS, in the paddock at B.I.R.

Brainerd International Raceway, Turn One. It comes up after a full mile of drag-strip straightaway, and you are at terminal velocity for whatever motorbike you are riding when this steeply banked 90° right-hander looms up at you. Tucked-in, under “the bubble”, it comes on fast. Very fast. And it is beyond anything you have ever experienced on the street. Trust me on this.

It was the last lap of a sprint race, Gogo and I were running fourth. A rider on a CBR 600 had been dogging us all race long. In the tight, technical infield, we owned him, blasting out of the corners on waves of Ducati torque that he couldn’t hope to match. But as soon as we throttled out of turn ten, he began to draft us, and he had a whole mile to wind it out and make his move on high-rpm, four-cylinder horsepower.

That was the chess game we played throughout the race; torque versus horsepower. On the white-flag lap, Gogo and I got a great run out of turn ten, and we still led going into turn one. When we reached the end of the straight, in a desperate move, Mr. Squidly dived down to the point where the banking transitioned, and his bike got into a wicked tank-slapper. He wobbled up the banking, slamming into Gogo and I, and knocked us off the track. The force of the impact stabilized his bike, and he finished the race. In fourth. The Bastard…

Meanwhile, on the shaggy wet grass of the outfield, my 900SS Ducati bucked like a bronco when it’s suspension bottomed out over lumps that it wasn’t designed to take. Clamping my knees around the tank, and trying in vain to hold the bars straight, there was no hope of applying Brembo braking power to slow us down. It was all I could do just to hang on.

As the ditch in front of the access road approached, I felt helpless to stop the raging forces of momentum, and resigned myself to an ignominious end; just another victim of high-velocity physics…

How the heck did I get into this mess?

Brainerd International Raceway was the birthplace of the Central Roadracing Association. In the mid nineteen-nineties, I started hanging around, and it didn’t take long before I caught the racing bug.

Working two full-time technical jobs; eighteen hours a day, ninety hours a week, I was able to save enough cash in six months to buy a brand new 1995 Ducati 900SS Cafe Racer.

It was a brutal Winter. I spent that entire six months of double full-time hell staring at wallpaper of this bike on the various PCs that I was working with at the time. The Italian mystique of those beautiful lines, and their total dedication to speed captured my very soul. That brilliant red image was burned into my retinas, and haunted the few hours of REM sleep that I managed to get during any given week.

But the reality of that Ducati was even better than I could have imagined, and it boosted me into the trajectory of the life I live today.

Immediately, I became a devotee of espresso. Gogo and I haunted “Bob’s Java Hut”, where we would hang out and wait for others of our kind to congregate. At some point, we would reach critical mass, and a Ride would form. That would usually take us onto the Alphabet Roads of nearby Wisconsin, at ton-up speeds and maximum adrenaline overload.

That was where I learned to scrape my kneepucks on the ground and eliminate the “chicken strips” from my tires. That was where I broke in my racing leathers. That was where I acquired the desire to race for real, against other speed freaks on that fearsome track at Brainerd.

And that was where I made a decision which very nearly ended my life.

Gogo2T.jpg
“The brand-new Ducati 900 Campione del Mundo Desmodue Supersport double-barreled magnum Cafe Racer filled me with feelings of lust every time I looked at it.” – Dr. Hunter S. Thompson

The crash was a good one. It’s too bad the TV cameras weren’t there to capture the carnage. Gogo dived down into that ditch and threw me a long way over the road, and out into the woods. At some point, my right knee disassembled itself. Ribs cracked, muscles tore, and I hit my head hard enough to break the visor on my helmet. But I never lost consciousness.

What I remember is staring up at the sky, unable to breathe, as I listened to the slap-slap-slap of corner worker’s shoes crossing the racetrack. Then, their heads popped into view around the perimeter of my blurred vision. “Are you alright?”

My reply, of course, was a weak “Aughkt! Argh! Ack!”.

They lifted me to my feet, and eventually I was able to hobble over to the ditch where Gogo had come to rest. She was a pitiful, broken sight, and I wanted to die. But then the ambulance arrived, and I had to take the mandatory ride back to the medical facility.

What followed was many months of recuperation, both mine and Gogo’s. After tending to the bent frame, forks, and wheels, I purchased a set of Sharkskinz bodywork for her, with a Powerbronze dual-round-headlight front end, and a new paint job that I had designed during my rehabilitation.

This took us through the Winter of 1996, and it was Spring of `97 before we got back on the road. My boss at the time was kind enough to terminate my employment with a generous severance package, just in time to enjoy the upcoming riding season.

For six blissful, unemployed months, I explored my new avocation as a cafe racer and budding motojournalist. Those were the happiest days of my life, up to that point. That was when I started writing “Diary of a Cafe Racer” for Minnesota Motorcycle Monthly, and when I found my true calling in life.

But my old maxim, “Nothing cool ever lasts…”, was never so true as it was in the years to come. I won’t go into details here, but life definitely took a turn for the worse. There were employment problems, legal hassles, and the constant pressure of living up to my new “Outlaw Cafe Racer” image. When my daughter Emily was born in November of `99, I had to leave all of that behind me.

I did so, with no regrets. Today, my life is much more relaxed. The role of father and family man is a challenge worthy of my best efforts. My motorbikes are slower, but the riding experience is richer. My old racing leathers don’t fit anymore, and that is probably a Good Thing.

17 Responses to “Cafe Racer Retrospective: Ol’ One Nine Seven”

  1. Dick Aal Says:

    Gary,
    You didn’t comment here on what revenge you took later on the 600cc Honda rider who did this to you. Is this for a subsequent blog?

  2. Bro Shagg Says:

    Dick-

    That may have something to do with “legal problems” he alluded to! Then again, maybe not… Either way, a paragraph like that short-handing this transition period in his life leaves me wanting and curious for more!

    -BS

  3. Gary Charpentier Says:

    Dick: Does the phrase, “That’s racin’…” sound familiar? That’s one of the unwritten rules you agree to when you sign up. I never even knew the guy’s name, and never saw him again after that day.

    Bro Shagg: Hmmm… I can see the focus is drifting a bit here. Maybe I’d better do a quick edit.

    Let’s put it this way: When you go racing on the streets, the Authorities begin to take an intense interest in you.

    Ride well,
    =gc=

  4. Bill Sommers Says:

    Wow, now thats a good piece of writing. I really like the way you structure these retrospectives.

    I agree with Hunter S. Thompson about the 900 as well.

    I remember going the the WIRA Road Nationals back in the early ’90s at the old Seattle International Raceway, and watching these guys go by on the front straight at 170 mph. I know how this can become addictive. But I wanted to be a “biker” back then, so I was just a fan of you guys.

    Have fun,
    Bill

  5. Harvey Binder Says:

    Great read. It is really hard to do what they teach you; to let the bike go in a wipeout, to get away from the catapolted mass of steel. Everything about the infield and the perimeter is designed to protect the rider in a high speed liftoff but to let go of the bike has got to be the hardest thing to get yourself to do. Very different from what one should do (if one can) on the public roads. Glad you survived Gary.

    I had the opportunity to race but I passed on it. A small group of people were willing to sponsor me. They were even willing to pay for my classes. You know what kept me from doing it? At a mere 5′6″ I never felt comfortable on a modern race bike. I don’t care for the reach or the seating position. When you’re too stretched out you can’t control the machine like a larger framed person can. I knew the issues I would face would be in a clear disadvantage sharing the envelope with other riders gunning to pass me.So kudos to you for getting out there and doing it Gary. Not all of us could even if we wanted to.

    About Wisconsin roads. Ahhhh : ) Wisconsin is my home. A temperate summer where riding gear can still be comfortable. Roads that I swear were designed by people who understand that driving and riding ought to be an experience in itself. Ok, that’s a given. Wisconsin was settled and built in the typical German mindset. Of course the roads are going to be wonderful! I’ve written in my blog about my experiences riding there in years past. Those roads are where I cut my riding teeth. Home.

    The Roadbum

  6. Gary Charpentier Says:

    Bill: What can I say, other than Thanks? I’m still waiting to read more about that Allstate resto on your blog. Shouldn’t you be wrenching or writing or something? ;^)

    Harvey: We have GOT to get out and ride together! What do you think of Wisconsin’s Rustic Roads?

    The thing about this incident was that I loved that bike so much. There was no way I could just let it go without trying to save it until the last possible moment. It didn’t work, obviously, and it took five grand to put it back together. I’m guessing that I probably would have fared better physically had I just baled on the grass and slid home like I was supposed to. But now I have these neat titanium screws in my knee… what a conversation piece.

    The lesson here is that you should never race a bike you love. You have to be totally ruthless out there on the track. So it should be a bike that someone else is paying for, one that you have no attachment to other than as a tool to achieve victory. That’s something I never learned how to do.

    Ride well,
    =gc=

  7. Harvey Binder Says:

    Rustic Roads, lettered highways… mmm adult candy, Gary. Whether you ride them fast or slow they are a drug. The apexes are smooth (not like most of MN), the turns lean the right way (not like most of MN)… they are inherantly different from the majority of the roads on this side of the river and sometimes it really bothers me that there should be such a marked difference between the two states. Maybe there are better roads west of the river. From what I’ve seen they’re sparse here.

    You can reach me at yamaha3ATcharterDOTnet We should talk ;)

    Harv

  8. Biker Betty Says:

    Ohhh, now I understand better about what a cafe racer is. Once again, a great write up. Let me add to all the above that I’m glad you survived and recovered from your crash. I cringed reading about it. Your cafe racer was a beauty. I have to say, I thought you might be referring to driving too fast when you mentioned legal problems, lol.

    Thanks for stopping by my blog. Thought I’d comment here, since there are so many comments at that particular post. I’m not really that popular, lol. I just get a lot of comments when I participate in the Saturday Photo Hunt. It’s a lot of fun. I should have mentioned in my post that my clock is a motorcycle “farkle,” lol.

    Betty :)

  9. Mad Says:

    She is a beauty that 900. Thanks for re-awakening my Ducati lust. I keep trying to make it go away but it resurfaces regularly. I think I want a 748…

    That CBR rider was deeply out of order, he should have been black flagged by the marshals.

  10. seagullplayer Says:

    What doesn’t kill us only makes us stronger, right?
    I’m so glad I never had the opportunity for any track racing. I seem never able to find my limit until I have crossed it; I expect my first wife could attest to that.
    By 1995 I had left most of that behind for little league and basketball coaching of my youngest son. He is driving now, and we have a CB550 we are working on together. How times change, I started wearing a helmet last year as a good example to him; the things we do for our offspring…

    Great read! Somehow I never got into that style of sport bike, perhaps that’s why I’m alive today.

    Rubber down

  11. Gary Charpentier Says:

    Harvey: You are right on target regarding the marked difference in the quality of the roads at the border. It’s not until you get up north, into the Iron Range country, that some of the roads take on a more creative character. One notable Southeastern exception might be Highway 60 out of Zumbrota.

    Betty: I was actually going to write about a different bike, but while I was gathering photos for that piece, I came across these shots of Gogo. Then the memories came flooding back, and the next thing you know… I guess that story needed telling first.

    Mad: Aren’t you looking at the 1098? THAT one has me drooling. But I’m probably past the age now where I could tolerate that riding position on my daily commute. The only way to really enjoy a bike like that is on a racetrack, and then you have to look at the minimum $15-grand investment.

    SGP: Racing was something I had to try for real. I was riding too hard and too fast on the streets, and I realized that I was pushing my luck. On the track, with no legal restrictions, you learn things about riding that you can never discover on public roads. Then, when you go back to the streets, you know where the limits of both the bike and yourself are, and you can ride well within them.

    I highly recommend a trackday riding school to everybody who enjoys the speed aspect of motorcycling. It will open your eyes.

    Ride well,
    =gc=

  12. MatL Says:

    As always – another great write up. Kind of cool that this particular story worked it’s way to the front of the line — those are usually the best stories. Amazing description of the Turn 1 event and I’m glad you survived. The laws of physics are an amazing thing that shouldn’t be taken lightly. Thankfully I only challenge them in video games. these days :-)

    I’ve been following your exploits online for some time now and have been thinking about the “Nothing cool ever lasts…” reading the MMM archives and the RTW — going from The Cafe Racer, turned writer, turned backroads rider, turned scooter commuter –> perhaps things aren’t meant to LAST, but we need to experience them so we have some “good old days” to reminisce. And in some cases, we just wait long enough until it is cool again.

  13. Gary Charpentier Says:

    MatL: You make a good point, there in your second paragraph. When we’ve got a good thing going, the desire is always to keep it going. But the only constant in human behaviour is change, at least when it comes to our forms of entertainment. What a strange dichotomy…

    Then there is aging to consider. Back when I rode Gogo, the new 1098 would have been Moto-Nirvana for me. Now, I doubt if I could stand to ride one across town, in our current traffic mess. That riding position would become old very quickly at speeds under the ton. Still, I wouldn’t mind giving it a go…

    Ride well,
    =gc=

  14. MatL Says:

    Strange balance indeed… yet perhaps in some way it is harsh necessity. Think of it as a hard-wired mechanism that forces a pattern variation, before the odds of nautral selection catch up with you.

    Not a purpose of life or quest for meaning change… more along the lines of live, learn, get bored, and live some more type of thing. Besides – purpose, meaning, and deep stuff like that get saved for those midlife crisis moments.

    Mat

  15. Tim Says:

    I just read over the article on your 450 Cafe Scrambler, sounds a lot like my project! I’d love to see some pictures of it.

    Great writing as always!

  16. Marty Says:

    Gary is so right. Change is the only reality.
    I love the example of your accident; not letting go is what gets us hurt.
    Just like in all of life, when we try to live as if things didn’t need to change or try to keep things from changing it brings us pain and suffering.
    If we can learn to let go, be in the moment, where we really are, there is satisfaction and happiness.
    When we learn to let go of that which we love most, we can be free to love truly and completely!

  17. Gary Charpentier Says:

    MatL: I do stray into philosophy here, now and then. I try to keep it metaphorical, and entertaining, but sometimes you have to just come right out and say it. I like when a conversation like this develops in the comments section.

    Tim: That’s the bike I was going to write about here, when Gogo came roaring back. You will see photos of that bike, Quasi Moto, in my next Cafe Racer Retrospective. If the bad weather continues here, that may come up pretty soon.

    Marty: Another rambling philosopher, I see. Good for you. Watch out for that mushy stuff at the end, though. We try to keep it at the bench-racin’, garage-talkin’ level in here. ;^)

    Ride well,
    =gc=