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Breakdown at Barber Vintage Moto-Fest

April 16, 2011

I am standing in the concrete shade of the media center basement, the only reasonably cool place to escape the afternoon sun trackside at Barber Motorsports Park.  A lanky gent, approximately my age, is wheeling a 1937 Norton Manx into Scrutineering. 

Today is my first contact with this mythical racing motorcycle outside of a museum or magazine.  It’s got oil on it, so it is being raced this very day, and the man pushing it I assume to be the pilot or owner.  I cannot contain myself. 

“This is beautiful!” I gush, snapping pictures like an Asian tourist. 

“Yeah, I have to say that I’m partial to this over any motorcycle I’ve ridden.  It has made me a much better rider too.  I mean, just look-it has a girder front fork, and a ridged rear end.” (Suspension that is primitive by any standards).  

“We have a 1961 model in the paddock, but I prefer this one.  It makes me realize that I am part of the bike. If it starts to shimmy a tad, if I push my head forward like this” (he juts his head forward less than ½”) “and it calms down.  My hands, butt and feet are part of the stiffening triangle.” 

This guy’s talkin my language, I’m thinking.   

“Wander down to our part of the pits sometime to see the other bike,” says the race pilot.

“If you’re going now, I’ll just tag along, and I can help you push the Norton back down to your pit,” I say.  I don’t want to miss an opportunity to hang with this guy. 

“OK, but you hop on, I’ll push you so you can get the feel for it,” is his reply.  

Huh?! 

Within seconds, I am aboard a vintage race bike, cowboy hat and all, rolling silently thru the paddock mayhem.  And, this isn’t just any vintage bike, this is a Manx Norton.  No wonder people are running towards us, cameras at the ready.  Someone pinch me, this can’t be true! 

“See how light yet steady she feels,” pants my pusher. 

“Dude!  I don’t even know your name and you’re running out of breath on my account,” I yell over my shoulder.

“Alex,” he blurts between breaths, “just head for that white van down the end.  Do a few turns, initiate by pressing your outside knee into the tank,”gasps Alex. 

The long push from Scrutineering thru the paddock

 

I am freewheeling now. Alex has given up the push 100 feet from our destination.  I paddle my right foot on the ground to keep the momentum up, and I accidently nudge the shift lever. 

‘Pop-klunk.’  My left hand automatically has the clutch pulled in. 

“Don’t move.  Don’t do anything at all,” I hear Alex’ voice above the din of blaring speakers and loud race pipes. 

The ‘pop’ sound I’m familiar with, probably the transmission going into gear, however the after ‘klunk’ sounded ominous to me.  I freeze as commanded. 

Coasting to a stop, I’m feeling like I’ve showed up for school wearing nothing but a red Speedo.  “Norton Dream Sequence” has instantly morphed into my worst nightmare.  The red Speedo matches my ears, which also match the embarrassment on my cheeks.  Alex takes charge of the bike and I follow him dry mouthed.  In truth, I feel like running away.  I don’t. 

“This is not your fault,” he says evenly over his right shoulder as he and the damaged Norton fade into the shade of the pit area.  This doesn’t begin to assuage my shame. 

“Guys, this is Arthur!” chants Alex to all within earshot. 

At that moment, three older gents on foldable beach chairs scan in my direction.  Shouts of “what?!”; ‘who?’; ‘What did he say?’ are accompanied by fingers reaching for hearing aid volume controls.  I meet them all, and they take turns throwing barbs at each other, typical for men of all ages who have seen much water pass under the bridge.  No one seems concerned about the Norton incident, including Alex. 

I end up being entertained by a very sweet older man named Joe sporting dual hearing aids and very thick prescription sunglasses.  His smile is contagious and he is not self conscious about needing help to get around.  I like him instantly. 

Joe and I

Joe pulls out a small board that has a model aircraft engine bolted to it.  It’s an inline four cylinder, four stroke replica of one of the ‘Moth’ series engines from WW1.  He built it from scratch, machining his own valves, pushrods, crankshaft, camshaft-everything except the pistons and crankcase.   I am floored. 

Joe starts his model aircraft engine.

Another man keeps to himself.  He is tall, very thin, dark skinned for a white man, and nattily turned out in a black long sleeved golf shirt, pressed blue jeans, and black leather walking shoes.  He has the strangest accent, a very low talker. 

“He’s from Rhodesia,” one of the gang volunteers, “so you can’t understand a word he’s saying.”  

 They all call him Bobby or Tobby or Gnarly or some name I can’t really make out.  Mentally I decide to call him Wobbly. 

A large man wearing a black Norton tee shirt sidles over to me puts his cane in his left then, warmly shakes my hand with his right and (sotto voce) tells me that Joe: 

“… is one smart fucker, and bless his heart, he has The Diabetes…”, (this is Darryl speaking) “,,, so he’s nearly blind and deaf, but he’s 92 by god.  That fucker worked on the Atom bomb.  You believe that shit?!”  

I also learn that Joe tested and delivered airplanes for Alon Ercoupe for a time, did some time for Lycoming Marine Engines and worked on some Military programs in WWII. 

 He also rode motorcycles all his life.  Joe produces photos of himself astride an Ariel Red Hunter, and in another, he is riding a side shift Indian while standing on the seat, arms out to his sides.  Obviously he was a hell raiser.  

Joe shoots me a toothy grin from under his ball cap imploring me to meet their ‘fearless leader’.  So he wakes the man dozing to my left who opens one eye from under his Korean War hat, pumps my hand once then goes back to sleep. 

Champagne Bob and Darryl

“That’s Bob!” Joe reports, “…and these are his bikes.  Bob likes his bikes to be run, not sit like museum pieces, which I think is the way it ought to be!” 

I couldn’t agree more.  Joe also lets me know that Bob flies Alex over from France to race, with no other explanation.  

Alex must be related to Bob, I think.  That’s why the family atmosphere around here. 

A gaggle of race bikes rip by behind the adjacent fencing.  By contrast, I see now that Alex the race pilot is making sandwiches for everyone, and is clearly worried about Joe having just taken his insulin getting enough to eat. 

“Joe, stop talking and eat!” Alex corrects him. 

Maybe Joe is related to Alex, I correct my previous assessment. 

Alex takes Joe to lunch.

These guys are parked the farthest away from the starting line, well beyond the vortex of blaring music, and wild graphics that envelopes the Barber Paddock.  I keep thinking that I have just crashed some high school 60 yr reunion, until reminded by race bikes’ presence that these men are here to race.  This is not what I expected; I mean this team cannot possibly be competitive.  Well, I’m glad to see that these men really care for each other, and in spite of the heat and their failing bodies are having the time of their lives.  

While Joe and Daryl have been swapping stories for my benefit, there is a non-stop line of visitors to this pit.  People of all ages, many with foreign accents.  Older women were hugging and kissing that Wobbly guy.  While Joe eats his sandwich, Wobbly comes back into the tent to help Alex get the older Norton started for practice. 

Mystery Man "Wobbly" and fan.

Maybe Alex is related to Wobbly.  I am clearly perplexed by this crew. 

Race bikes have no starter motors, and most have had kick starters removed to save weight.  To get them running, a bike’s rear wheel is placed onto a pair of rollers, which are spun by an electric motor (or a lawnmower engine, or the family car rear wheel).  The pilot puts the bike in gear so that when the rollers engage, the engine is bump started. 

Alex is sweating in his leathers and helmet in the full sun.  The rollers spin, but something’s wrong-no starting.  Alex slowly shakes his head, rolls the bike off, bends over to the shift lever, and sits up shaking his head again.  The bike is handed to the tall dark Wobbly, while Alex pulls off his helmet.  

I had almost forgotten the Pop/Klunk incident of earlier.  My intestines are crawling. 

“….like I said, I was pushing Arthur back from Tech, he nudged it into gear, which it should be able to handle (Alex glances at me, softly making eye contact) and I heard something drop or break free.  Something is wrong with the shifter or transmission.” 

The attempt to put me at ease was nice, but my guilt is profound.  I feel the need to help, but cannot.  Leathers still in place, Alex bends to the troubleshooting task, hauling out battered tool boxes and giving Wobbly gentle commands.  

Before you visualize the shimmering pit spaces you see in Motorcyclist Magazines or Fuel TV forget it.  No uniforms, no painted floors, no catering, not even one Snap On roll away tool box.  It’s bare macadam underneath a sweltering tent with beach chairs, and a few coolers.  

As the troubleshooting commences, those chairs now scrape the ground as the whole crew leans in towards the ailing Norton.  The talk gets instantly serious.  Theories abound, Alex parries them and eventually tunes them all out, helping Wobbly who is sitting on a mat beside the bike.  

I’m feeling the sweat.  I mean, I broke it. Accidentally, sure, but Alex would be out practicing if it weren’t for my little ride across the paddock.  I want something to happen fast.  Whoever this Wobbly guy is, he’s no speed demon, but this isn’t my show, and what in the fuck do I know about a 1948 Norton race bike?  

The quiet dark man sits reverently, working slowly and methodically disassembling the shift box on the right side of the motor.  It’s very hot, Kunta-Kinte hot, and Wobbly is wearing long sleeves and not breaking a sweat.  He’s also not getting dirty at all. 

Back when this cycle was designed, the engine was separate from the transmission.  They are connected via short chain, known as the Primary Chain which is covered by a thin sheet metal housing that attempts to keep the rider’s feet out of the whirling mechanism.  Some racers leave the cover off, others do not, but when in place, you can still make out both chains visually. 

Wobbly, is taking the shifting mechanism apart on the right side of the transmission.  At one point, he turns to Joe and asks in proper King’s English,

“Um Joe, could you lend me a hand here, I’ve never taken this transmission apart.”

Don was right, Joe is just about sightless, due to Diabetes, but he has been working on bikes like this since his youth.  Undaunted, he slowly bends toward the motor, feeling around on the remaining bolts, quivering hands stopping on a brass nut atop the shifter shaft. 

“See this?” Joe taps a small brass acorn nut.  “Remove the shift lever, and then turn this nut, which is a left hand thread.  Underneath you will find another nut, which is a bearing preload.  Then when the cover comes loose you’ll see that there’s a ball bearing set underneath.” 

“Ah, yes, yes, I see!” says Wobbly shaking his head and smiling broadly. 

Joe feeling around the gearbox

I don’t believe what I’ve witnessed, an actual case of the blind leading the sighted.  The mechanic in me becomes aware of what a special guy Joe is that he knows a Manx Norton well enough to feel his way and direct the teardown to a sighted person.  Also, it seemed totally natural for Wobbly to ask Joe for help.  I’m in a movie, this is so weird. 

At some point, Alex has roared off unnoticed on another bike to practice, leaving the team to repair the old.  Wobbly has the entire shift mechanism apart and needs someone to turn the rear wheel to feel the transmission gears move.  Joe feels his way out of his chair and kneels down to the rear tire.  I can’t make out what is going on.  All I hear are snippets of an exchange between the two experienced technicians. 

“I’ll turn it…”

“No, nothing yet.”

“OK here it comes. Now backwards.”

Yes, it’s in gear now!”

“I’m turning the wheel, now could it be?”

“Yes yes yes, it’s all right.” 

Suddenly the conversation brews to a crescendo. 

“Who the hell removed the Primary chain?!  No wonder it won’t go into gear!  The damned engine isn’t even connected to the transmission!”  The voice is Joe’s who is feeling around on the opposite side of the engine from Wobbly. 

I’m stunned.  Here, were three sighted guys: Daryl, Alex and Wobbly convinced that the transmission had to be disassembled.  But it took a blind guy to feel around on the other side of the engine to get to the root cause, a very simple fix by the way.  

Relieved to have something to do, I grab some tools and jump over to the left side of the bike and remove the primary chain cover.  In the bottom of the cover lies the snapped chain.  Joe is grinning ear to ear and I’m very happy for him.  His enthusiasm makes my eyes wet for a second. 

Together, we begin to change the primary chain, and Joe is in charge.  I am to be his eyes and hands.  Joe asks me what it looks like. 

“Master link came apart,” I report.

“Is it bent?”

“Badly,” is my response.

“Can you see the rest of the master link?” queries Joe.

“Nope, the snap ring and link washer are gone, “is my reply. 

Alex has now returned and nonchalantly throws a new chain into my lap.  I’ve changed drive chains many times, but never a primary chain on an antique let alone a racing machine.  I also realize that these guys do not know me at all, yet they seem to trust me to install a new primary chain while Wobbly puts the shifter back together.  

I am fully in performance anxiety mode.  The replacement chain is a universal part, so it is intentionally too long, and must be shortened.  Joe asks me to carefully count the links, which I screw up in my nervousness. Sensing this, Joe places his fingers on the back of my hands to shadow my movements as a way of speeding our communication.  In this way, he teaches me the fool proof way of counting the links then cutting the new chain.  It was a wonderful experience for me-donating my hands and eyes to someone else’s more experienced mind.  I am touched.  

Primary chain repaired...note RTV on master link.

The surreal nature of this experience is starting to soak in when I feel a hand on my shoulder.  I turn and see that it belongs to Alex. 

“Thank you, Arthur!” he sings.

“…uh…I’m not….ah…”

“You saved my ass, man!” Alex breaks in, shaking my shoulder for emphasis.

“No, I broke your bike,” I say guiltily.

“No way!” smiles Alex.  “Can you imagine what would have happened if that came off on the track?  It could have damaged my leg, and taken the crankcase with it.  Hell, if the chain jammed when it broke, the rear wheel would have locked and I would be in the hospital.” 

The afternoon passed quickly with my adoptive family.  I find out that this team is called “Champagne (Bob) Racing”.  I am about to ask why Champagne, when I see Bob diligently cutting the bottom out of a plastic coke bottle, followed by him pouring a glass of bubbly into his newly fashioned champagne flute.  Bob clearly likes champagne, I get it now. 

By evening, I still had to wonder about the racing.  No one asked Alex anything about his heat races, the bike setup or anything.  Alex didn’t talk about the track or the bike.  He talked about his home in Paris and how in addition to jet lag from the flight over, he was nursing a head cold. 

At sunset, I called my brother, David to share my day.  Dave loves motorcycles as much as I do, yet unlike me reads and retains just about everything that’s been printed on the subject. 

I am giving him the condensed version of my experience, “…so, I suddenly find myself twisting wrenches on a Manx Norton…” 

“Why are YOU wrenching on a Manx Norton?!” he breaks in. 

I tell my story of ‘breaking’ Alex’s race bike, and meeting a wonderful group of older gents.  

“There was one guy, I didn’t get his name.” in continued.  “People kept stopping by to see him.  The crew called him Tobby or Nubby, I think it was Wobbly. 

A very long silence is followed by Dave: “Nobby?…Nobby Clark?” 

“Yes, that’s him!” I cry, “How on earth do you know?” 

“Nobby fucking Clark.  You twisted wrenches with Nobby fucking Clark!” he bellows.  I could visualize him hopping up and down on his chair. 

“What’s the big deal,” I want to know. 

“Fuck dude, Nobby tuned bikes for Honda Racing back in the 1960’s then Yamaha Race Team in the 70’s.  Nobby has bent wrenches for everyone, including Mike Hailwood and Kenny Roberts!  He’s been to the Isle of Man, like 26 times for god sakes!” 

“Holy shit” I say solemnly, a chance meeting doesn’t get any better than this or so I think. 

Later, I’m drinking beer in the paddock and I ask my friend, Ivan, if he knows Alex. 

“Alex?  On the Nortons?  Alex McLain?” 

“Yeah, I reply.  I met him and hung around his crew this afternoon, which was pretty laid back..  Are they competitive at all?”

A pregnant silence ensues.  Ivan finally breaks it. 

His Royal Bad-Assedness: Alex

“He’s badass, dude.  Real badass.  Alex is fast, has raced everywhere, and took second in his class at the Isle of Man GP.  Tomorrow, on that Norton…shit, all he has to do is place 6th and he’ll win the entire series on points.  

Initially shocked, I find myself laughing loud and hard at my own prejudice.  I was warmly welcomed by some guys with heavy experience but I (Mr. Self-Important) couldn’t get past their appearance.  In truth, had I known how experienced the Champagne Racing team was I probably would have never ventured into their path.  Thanks guys for hours of relaxation and tension: you made my weekend at Barber!

Champagne Racing: Bob, Alex, Joe and Nobby

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