All Rights Reserved © 2008 Thomas W. Day
Last year, I found myself the lucky correspondent in an extended email conversation with Kevin Cameron as the result of an article I was working on about motorcycle journalists and writers. An editor had fired up my curiosity by claiming that Cameron was a motorcycle writer, like many, who needed massive editorial correction to appear sentient. Several years ago, I'd heard Kevin in a technical presentation and suspected he probably wrote at least as well as he spoke. DynoTech's editor, Jim Czekalaof, told me, "The thirty of so technical articles Kevin Cameron has contributed to DynoTechResearch are printed exactly as received. Since you've heard him speak at some technical function, you know that Kevin speaks, even off the cuff, exactly like he writes. I doubt that he has a team of editors helping him in his home office." Jim forwarded my query to Kevin and a conversation began that I hope will continue for a long time.
After reviewing Kevin's most recent book, Top Dead Center, I continued my lucky stumbling when he consented to an interview about the book and his life in motorcycling.
MMM: Is this a good time?
KC: It might be.
MMM: I can understand that.
One of the things I got from the beginning of Top Dead Center is that you were a race tuner and a shop owner or a dealer. Is that right?
KC: I was a partner in a little outfit called Arlington Motorsports, which was in Arlington, MA. I think I was sort of something extra added on there. The thing might have done ok, as a business, but we were mad for racing and spent too much money on it. Kind of like the Cold War.
MMM: It did look like you spent a lot of money on racing.
KC: In those days a crankshaft for an H1R was $105 to the dealer, in 1971. By 1977, when Kawasaki were fazing out their KR750 liquid-cooled three cylinder, the cost of the crankshaft to Kawasaki was $850. Now, basically, the same number of operations to assemble, or to manufacture.
MMM: So it's all inflation or materials changes?
KC: I think it's just the number being built. Because the KR750 shared no parts with any production model. The AMA originally required 200 machines for homologation. And that's what was required, for example, of Yamaha TD1C's. There had to be shown to be 200 of them. Or the TZ750A, in 1974. For '76 or '75, they changed that to the "twenty-five rule." And then, almost immediately, changed it to "you have to make one in order to have it homologated." The crankshaft for the H1R -- all the flywheels, the connecting rods, and so forth -- were the same forgings as production parts. Then for the KR750, everything was low production, custom item. So, we used to pay, during the '70's, $125 or something like that for a set of crankcases for a TZ250. Then, the TZ250H of 1981, suddenly the crankcases were $1,000 because they weren't shared with a production model.
MMM: What year did you go out of doing race tuning?
KC: Sort of gradually in the 1980's. Because the Daytona 200 was switched to a Superbike race in '84. I built a couple of 4-stroke bikes engines and there was no economic basis for it. The thing about a 2-stroke is that, if you have a piston seizure, you can be running in a half an hour. If you wreck a 4-stroke, the chances are that you need an engine. You are not going to rebuild it. Nobody works on engines at the races anymore.
MMM: I didn't realize that.
KC: They just replace them. When Honda was leaving Laguna, this past weekend, I think they had eight of those molded plastic caissons on casters, each of which said "RC212VE/Z" and gave the engine number. And those were eight engines that were at Laguna for the two factory guys.
MMM: So you don't see a lot of welding sparks going on in the pit area?
KC: No, it used to be that people's frames were cracking and repairs were being made. Rich Chambers, who does some announcing now, always had welding gas in the back of his truck and was very generous with it. People welded things with coat hanger, nice soft iron wire. You could hear the sound of die grinders as recently the early 90's, because there was still a 250 class.
"The die grinders that you hear today are doing things like finishing out little cooling holes in brake disk shrouds or finishing the edges of windscreens that have been cut so that they don't interfere with the rider's helmet. But it used to be, if someone was putting on a new cylinder they'd have to raise the exhaust port. They'd have to do something with the transfers. They'd be little operations.
Kel Carruthers used to do desperate things at the track; they came with the TZ250C in 1976. It had a very low exhaust port. They struggled with that thing all through practice. The Kawasaki's were threatening, the following year they were on the pole. At the last minute, Kel said, "Alright, we're going to do it." They raised the exhaust port 2mm and took 20mm out of the exhaust header pipe and made some corrections in the morning warm-up and they had a race winner.
MMM: All of these precision-sounding changes, these were off of a rule-of-thumb or best-guess, right? They're weren't any flow-testing or . . .
KC: No, you knew what had run for you before. Well, the top of the exhaust should be this many millimeters down and you knew what the shape of the exhaust port had to be in order to not snag the rings. And so, that would take care of the exhaust port dimensions. If you needed to adjust the transfers . . . Kel did it for Kenny in Europe, over the objections of Mr. Doy in 1981 on the 0W54. They machined the base of the cylinder to lower the transfers and, then, they raised the exhausts.
MMM: Looking at some of those early articles you wrote, my guess is that you built close to 80% of a motorcycle yourself, didn't you?
KC: Oh yeah. For instance, we had chassis built by Frank Camillieri who has a machine shop business in New Hampshire now. He used to be north of Boston. An avid racer for years, until Rusty Bradley was so much faster than he was in practice, in 1971, that he said, "That's it. I'm outta here."
But a very good builder. He also made some swingarms for me. So when we built our 750 in 1972, that had a Frank Hamlari frame and swingarm. It had a C&J gas tank made by an outfit in California that was that low-boy tank that was only about 3" high above the frame rail. That bike started out with a Rickman fork, with had 1 5/8" tubes. Terribly modern.
At the start of the year, just for Daytona, we had on a 250mm Fontana 4-shoe drum brake on the front. It was just useless compared with the new disks. So, we quickly converted to disk brakes. I mean, there was no transition there. There no period where drum brakes were better for this, but disk brakes were better for that. It was like "Oh shit, why didn't we think of this before?" The thing with the drum brake is that it has some degree of weather protection, as far as off-road is concerned. As far as a heat absorber, there is just no contest. That became obvious at Daytona in '72.
Of course, '72 was also the "hinge of fate" for tire design. The new 750 triples from Kawasaki and Suzuki just tore up every tire available and the race was won on a 350 Yamaha twin. So, it was the end of the hard rubber era. Dunlop created their new speedway special tire, which was 5 1/2" wide and it required a WM5 rim, I think. Suddenly, everything was different. The end of '73, Goodyear were making something similar, although much more flexible and the following spring the slick tire came out. 1974. At the time, we just thought were having some tire trouble. We didn't see it as, "Wow man, this is like history."
MMM: There seems to be a lot of that going on right now, between Bridgestone and Michelin; especially in the MotoGP territory.
KC: Mr. Giorgio Barbier, the racing manager at Pirelli, says that there are now two separate lines of development for motorcycle tires. There's the MotoGP line which are inflated at 12-15psi, this is rear tires. And then there is everything else. And "everything else" means tires with some commercial utility. Their spec tires for British Superbike and World Superbike are some use to them in developing world production tires.
Whereas, the new super-low pressure racing tires are sort of retracing the footsteps of what happened when Dunlop developed the R5 car racing tire, in the 50's. They had had some tire failures and they decided they would start to use this nylon material for the carcass, instead of cotton; which was the former choice. Nylon was much stronger, so you need fewer plies. That meant a more flexible tire, which meant that you could afford a lower inflation pressure and, therefore, get a bigger footprint. And so they had the peculiar result of a tire that had less top speed but a much quicker lap time. It had less top speed because the rubber was intentionally made with a lot of internal friction, so-called hysteresis. In order to give it enhanced dry grip and, in particular, much better wet grip.
So, this has been a trend; to make a more flexible tire that lays down a bigger footprint and to permit the tire to survive the heat that would generally be generated in that case by taking a lot of the material out of the tire. Because the more rubber there is there, flexing, the hotter the tire. So, the MotoGP tire, now, the Michelins are very low pressure and, in general, have a soft construction where the Bridgestone’s have equally low pressure but a stiffer carcass construction.
Because both Stoner and Rossi are at high angles of lean for some time. As Rossi commented last year, he said "With the very soft construction that Collin likes, as soon as I touch the throttle the back of the machine jumps sideways." So, I asked Barbier -- you don't ask Michelin people anything, they are sworn to eternal secrecy -- if there was such a thing as compressive buckling in tire carcasses and he said, "Oh yes, it's certainly true." So, I think that's what goes on. Anyway, Rossi and Stoner both like a more substantially constructed carcass that has some resistance to buckling, even by itself, without the inflation.
MMM: How stiff are these tires, compared to what we use on the street?
KC: I think you'd find them softer.
MMM: A lot softer, or just some?
KC: Softer. The fact that there is very little rubber on them and they, being semi-radial construction, they have one main carcass ply and they have the two cut breaker plies under the tread. Which makes that portion stiff, laterally. My analogy for that is that it's like a tank track, which is flexible in one direction and quite rigid in others.
MMM: That brings up a question I have not found an answer for on my own. One of our writers referred to you as some kind of "deity." On the internet, you have everything from a tech school background to a PhD from Harvard.
KC: Yeah well. I'm self-taught in the vocational end and . . . Lenin "seizing the means of production." And as far as the other is concerned, I had an undistinguished college career at a leaf-encrusted East Coast school. That was in physics and it was clear that I wasn't going anywhere because I didn't have the math for it.
"Years later, I learned that the reason for the clarity in Harry Ricardo's classic on the internal combustion engine, The High Speed Internal Combustion Engine, was that he was advised at university to stay on the practical side and avoid the theoretical, because his math wasn't so hot. If you have the math, then you can say, "Well of course, let's see now, velocity is going to appear . . . one, two, three . . . ok, velocity cubed and we're going to need a coefficient that looks like this and . . . for small angles of alpha these terms disappear so we end up with this." And there is your understanding, but, for me, it has to be a word picture.
MMM: I suppose physics programs aren't big on word pictures.
KC: It's a strange thing. There are a lot of people, in engineering, who work this way. The Russians, in their theoretical physics groups, seem to recognize that there are the theoreticians and the pure experimentalists and those who work by what they call "deep physical intuition." I think you get that by messing with the stuff. You probably have to be interested in it, I mean you can't assign everyone in an army unit "go out there an get deep physical intuition as described on page 73," but you could get more than you've got. What I see going on now is that kids don't play with stuff. They get to university, as the guys at RPI once told me, "every new entering freshman class has better keyboard skills and more math," but they are less prepared to deal with the physical world. When those people become engineers etc. and go on the job, they have to go and do the playing that they would have done when they were 12 or 8 or 16. They do it on the job and some pretty ridiculous things come out of it. But in the end, the same function is performed, namely, the person gets squared away with physical reality.
MMM: When I was in engineering classes in the 1970s, I took a "career development class." When the instructor asked, "Why do you want to be an engineer." 99% of the class replied "I heard it was a good job." Only a couple of older guys were there because we wanted to build stuff.
KC: In '63, a lot of guys were saying "Oh wow, man. I can start at 18k in Palmdale (Lockheed)"." 18k! Christ, you could buy a house! That was the big draw. Now, of course, anyone would be an idiot to go into such [engineering] courses. You know when you go to work, the boss will say "I can get four opinions from China for the price of one from you. Get lost." And, of course, there is Professor Falco who asked, "Did you ever meet a 40 year old electrical engineer?" I said I'm not sure I ever had. And he said, "You never will, either. Because,” he said, “by the time they get to 40 they've had to move into another field because they are obsolete.”
MMM: At least engineering management. When I was in college, they told us that "the day you leave college is the day you become obsolete."
KC: Sure. The day your education stops is an important day. You mustn't ever let it to happen.
MMM: You talked, in your book, about how you came to write for Cycle and Cycle World. You didn't talk about where you started writing. You were obviously a good writer right from the first things I read from you.
KC: The thing that happens there is, I'm remembering my dad talking about it. My dad was in publishing. He was talking about some guy who was struggling with writing. He said, "No wonder. He's never read anything." I think one thing is exposure to example. If your parents are good talkers, and they talk, that's one thing. If there is a lot of reading going on, that's another thing.
"I think I was always interested in explanations. I've got a couple of papers I wrote when I was having a moment with anthropology grad school and they sound like me. There is just a little bit of humor and a lot of explanation and it's grammatically constructed. That's becoming more unusual every day.
MMM: Good point.
KC: I just finished with a revision of that 1998 book, the Sportbike Performance Handbook. Most of the errors were put there by the copy editor, because they are modern idiom. Instead of saying "not that large a group of people," she wrote "not that big of a . . . " "Big of a" is really taking over.
MMM: If you are going to be modern, you are going to have to start every sentence with "like," too?
KC: And they didn't want my average reader to be Lester Blogs, they wanted it to be Joe Schmoe. I said, "No, I wrote it the way I wanted."
MMM: The group of people I know who have read that book wouldn't be "average" by any means.
KC: Yeah. Another thing, I had a little sister who wanted things explained to her.
I think, mostly, there are families where there isn't a lot of conversation. The parents are busy. The children are at daycare. The talking they do is going to be with the so-called "peer group," which is actually an outreach organization of television advertisers. The results are what you might expect. People speak in what a machinist would call "canned cycles." Canned cycle, in machining, is you would have a set of protocols for producing a radiused edge which would otherwise be a 90 degree corner. You would simply . . . I guess in computing it's called an "object" . . . a set of instructions you don't have to physically write. You just call it in and tell it where you want it to operate. So people memorize all these phrases and there are people you meet, who are perfectly nice, but it's hard to get through their Hallmark persona.
MMM: You didn't write about very many people like that. There were some outstandingly interesting personalities you described who were considerably different people than I had taken them to be from the brief glance we had from, say, television.
KC: Roberts is a funny character. He's a very intelligent person and that's why he was able to analyze what he did on the racetrack. But he had to have some other quality, which I can't put a name to. He has always been able to think of something that he thinks he should be doing on the racetrack and to put it into his choreography.
It has often been the case that . . . for example, Kenny tried to get Mike Kidd into road racing. Mike Kidd was so outstanding on the dirt. They had him at Daytona, practicing. Kenny would take him aside and say, "You are rushing these corners. I want you to think about this. Which is more valuable, to keep going at a high speed for another 17 feet at the end of the straightaway or to get a really strong drive off of every corner which will add to your performance all the way to the next corner?"
Kidd would say, "Yeah, I see what you mean."
Kenny would tell him what you have to do is to alter your line like this, get your turning done over here, and use the rest of the turn as a launch pad for really strong acceleration. Kidd would go out and kind of get it. A talented privateer, at Daytona at that time, would turn 2:10. They change the course every year, so these lap times don't make any sense. Kenny worked him down to 2:06. I think 4 seconds, just by talking, is pretty good. Kenny would go to the hotel and Kidd would go back to 2:10.
Irv had the same experience with Alex Barrows. Alex has had a long, really solid career in top level racing, but he's never been a championship threat. The year Irv worked with him, he made the same argument that Kenny made to Kidd. Barrows accepted it and he went out in practice and he could do it. It seems that it is just like an immigrant who learns English and speaks it quite well, when he becomes agitated he begins to sound a lot more foreign.
MMM: Sure, he reverts to his habits.
KC: Sure we are onions, not watermelons. We just revert to an inner defense layer when the conditions seem to warrant it. I think that's what happens with a lot of people. And I further would argue the reason some people have left the sport -- like Luca Cadalora, John Kocinski, Max Biaggi, and many top people -- is that they did not have that flexibility that Kenny and Rossi and a few others seem to have. As the nature of motorcycle design and, particularly, tires evolve under them they are unable to exploit the advantages of what is new and continue to try to set their motorcycles up so they feel as they have always felt. Ultimately, that becomes impossible and they have to give up. If they can't get the cues that tell them what is going to happen next, they have no confidence. It's like you are driving quite nicely at night and, suddenly, your headlights go out. You have no cues, you stop. When these guys say that "such and such is really not advancing in practice very rapidly," they will go to talk to those people and he'll say "well, that front end feels . . . " They just can't get it to feel like he wants it to. The rider has no way of anticipating how much is too much. Kenny and certain others, it seems, were able to make arbitrary adjustments to their style and still go fast. It's remarkable.
MMM: When I picked up TDC, I stumbled on to your chapter on Kenny Roberts and what you just described. I was sucked into the book because you did a terrific job of describing his personality and he was so different from what I expected.
KC: This was something that surprised Cook Neilson, when he met Kenny. He met Kenny in '73, before he was national champion. At Dayton, one year, he had a long talk with him in the Goodyear tower. He came out of there and he seemed almost dizzy. He said, "I went in there and I guess I was thinking I was going to talk to this quick wrist kid who just goes out there and kind of skids it around." I think of that as the Ken Purdy view of racing. Big balls, hot blood, when this guy gets all emotional he's unbeatable. He has to have his orange juice at the right time of the morning or everything is off. Neilson said, "Instead, I have to call him an 'intellectual of racing."
I had my innings in 1980, when I was sent to his house to do an interview. I thought of the old question the sportswriter, with no imagination, puts to the champion. He says, "Hey champ, how does it feel to hit the longest home run in Ebbets Field history." The champ says, looking at the guy somewhat searchingly, "It feels great."
So, I thought I was going to have to do something to get his interest. How can there be a conversation if both parties don't get something from it. Otherwise, it's called an interrogation. So, I decided to leave the notebook and the recorder in the car. I went in, and after the formalities, I said, "How far into your career did you get before you discovered that you were more intelligent than the people you were working with?" He sat and looked at me for a minute and I thought "oh shit." And then he started with that business about what happened at Brands Hatch, going up into the truck and making himself an office out of tires. And it was just fabulous material. I was very appreciative, you can bet, because it made that story. Yamaha liked it very much. It was really quite the gift.
MMM: It was a great story, no question about it.
KC: He hadn't told it before because nobody had asked him. He said that was the first moment, when he went out into practice and in three laps he was right on the lap record. He said, "That was the first time in my life when I realized that it was my mind that made everything go fast, or not. And it didn't have anything to do with my hands, or my ass, or my feet." Kenny, now, alternates between being this intelligent, analytical person who understands this activity that he can't seem to leave. On the other hand, taunting those around him by slipping into redneck obscurantism and saying provocative things that sound like talk radio.
He can be a real pain in the ass. Phil Shilling hated him, called him "that little shit."
MMM: Seemed like there was a little conflict between KR and KR Jr., wasn't there?
KR: Kenny Jr. had the Einstein problem; "Albert Einstein is my dad and much is expected of me, but I take it all with a pound of salt." Kenny Jr. is kind of the flat affect man. Now that he's no longer racing, his attitude is "I have a great time everyday. I get up when I want. I eat what I want, If I want to go lie around on the boat, that's what I do." He said, "I burned my passport. Never getting on a commercial airliner again, as long as I live."
MMM: I can understand that.
KC: Yeah. Curtis is, on the other hand, is like a scary, close replica of his dad. He walks with his arms sort of sprung out from his sides, like a person who has just come from the gym and hasn't done his stretching. His voice has that sibilance that his dad's voice has. All of his enunciation is very much like his dad's. Nobody can tell him anything. He looked like he was set for a big career in racing, and up, up, up he went but ooops . . . well, his tire didn't last. His tire didn't last this time either. They sent him to Freddy. They lectured him. He was moved from one team to another. He sorta . . . I think his dad told him to go to college. "Get a job, you know? Make some money in this life."
MMM: The designers you've written about. Nobody else in the business writes much about those guys. Are those people tough to sell to your editors?
KC: No, they were assignments. At Cycle World, David Edwards doesn't want any advice from anybody. I want to do a story about Albert Gunter but it hasn't happened yet. It was years before I could do a story about Rex McCandles. Fortunately, the research that I've done for those stories, both written and unwritten, has had value in other areas. Those people have a lot to tell us.
It's an interesting thing, how different a motorcycle magazine is from a sports car magazine. Sports cars have social standing. There is a class of dentists with 911's who devour the latest tire shootout and they go back to the tire store and they have their Toyo tires taken off and they have Chen Shins put on, or whatever won the last shootout. Now they are cool. There is nothing comparable on the motorcycle side.
"Moreover, the readership keeps getting older. It may be, as some propose, that motorcycling in the US was a one-time, non-recurring phenomenon. There was a huge bulge in the '60s and '70s and those people are now on their second or third marriages and, arguably, have their lives under control. They can go out and buy any motorcycle they want. And a lot of them have. Those are the "born again" riders. The big demographic change that took place in the '80s and '90s, namely the evisceration of the lower middle class and the end of good industrial jobs in the US, meant that motorcycles moved upscale. So, an outfit like Ducati today is well advised to do what those Chris-Craft guys have done. Namely, to market products aimed at people who are not hurt by off-shoring or job loss.
MMM: I hadn't thought of that, but it's obviously true.
KC: And that's why you can see all of these outfits like Moto-Ecosse. They sell an all titanium motorcycle, which is an ugly thing, but every single part on it is machined out of billet or meticulously welded. You might call them "abstract choppers." Two hundred and fifty thousand dollars. And they have buyers; hedge fund managers, software designers . . . I was talking to this guy in the energy drink palace at Laguna. He seems like this happy, goofy guy, but they cut a lot of titanium in the shop and they do all this really existential-looking welding. Focus on any part of these motorcycles, which I think are ugly, but the parts are nice. There are people who want that. It's not the same as somebody who buys a 4-wheel drive 911 with the liquid-cooled heads; or whatever it is that's really out there at the moment. A Ferrari F430, in comparison with something like that is a commodity.
MMM: I suppose that's so. The article you wrote about Continental Tire, in the 80's, made it sound like there was a huge middle-class motorcycle crowd that doesn't exist here. Is that different now?
KC: I saw those people when we were a little late getting to the paddock at Hokenheim, in '81. We're in this jam and surrounded on all sides by tricked-out BMW's and, for some reason, Germans really loved Laverdas at that time. Two people on every bike. His and hers, matching leathers, some all-black and many multi-colored. With all the most expensive stuff that Her Krauser used to make. I thought this is quite a crowd to be stuck in. Now, it was always clear to me that when leaving the track at Louden to get five gallons of gas that, a mile down the road, nobody'd every heard of Kenny Roberts. When Schlacter finished sixth in the 250GP at Hokenheim in '81 and Krauser told us to come see him the next day, we started off down the road. We stopped to get something eat and we went into the restaurant and there were motorcyclists there. "Ah Schlacter." They pushed forward their best English speaker who then interrogated him as to why he took this line, in this chicane, and why did he do something different from this rider, and what was the point of this? It was all very much like football morning after. It was an entirely novel experience for me.
The notion of well-informed motorcyclists, as opposed to the guy who . . . Jim Allen brought a friend to Mosport once. The friend said, "Where should I watch?"
Jim said, "Well there is Moss's Corner is a demanding place, there's this and that, there's the transition into turn two . . ."
"No, no," the guy said. "You don't get it. Where can I see the best accidents?"
At the time, in the 80's when I might still be asked to be on the AMA pro-comp board, I was the guy who would say, "Let's admit that spectators come to see somebody injured. Instead of pussy-footing around the issue, let's talk about snipers in the stands and oil jets in the corners." Of course, this is what's behind all the anti-electronics thing. They want to see them high-side.
MMM: Is the anti-electronics group primarily US?
KC: No, Rossi is opposed to the electronics. I asked Burgess about that and he said, "Oh, he is a member of the outgoing generation and, of course, he would like to return to the status quo. He would win." A year ago, Capirossi said he wishes the 500's would come back. "Those were strong engines," he said. "If we put this field on 500's, half of them would fall off in one lap."
Some of the people are simply making the argument that this is entertainment and if the spectators aren't entertained they won't come. There are the Hemmingway "true fight" types who want this manly contest. Rossi spoke of the rider "in love with the throttle." It's a terrible intimacy. He said, "You open up a bit from the edge and you wait. You put some more footprint down and you can open up a little more. Maybe 70 meters after the corner you have the throttle open. Now, you pick your point in the corner and simply pin it and the system takes over." That's evidently not true on the Honda's at this point. I think the Honda are behind on the software developments.
MMM: It's hard to imagine that the electronics are that quick and that good.
KC: I was told that by one of the teams that they have a device by which they can take a sound recording at the edge of the track, say at the apex of a corner. They can then process the sound in such a way that they can tell when somebody's anti-spin system begins to cycle. They say when Stoner's way down to 5mm off of the edge of his tire that his anti-spin system is already at work. Which means he already has the throttle open. As Rossi comments, you get on to full throttle sooner and arrive at the next corner going faster. The tires let you go through that corner faster and, consequently, when you do have a loss of grip the resulting crash is worse than ever.
I could imagine that somewhere the FIM or DORNA or somebody are preparing grooved tires. You've probably ridden knobbies on the road, you know that feeling? Because they have grooved tires in so-called Formula One and they may decide that everyone has to have a V-4 engine with this bore and stroke. I think before then Honda will go home and it will all be over and something else will have to go in its place.
MMM: It does seem like when the regulatory agencies become obnoxious enough that the manufacturers don't like to play anymore the manufacturers just find different places to play.
KC: Oh yeah, the budget goes someplace. It just moves.
MMM: I remember when motocross was all outdoors, most of the audience was made up of riders and their families. Once it moved indoors in the 80's, the spectators are largely non-riders and the tracks looked to me to be designed to create spectacular crashes. Is there an equivalent in road racing?
KC: Well, I think now that they have the runoff areas where the gravel is so deep even if your motorcycle is upright it won't be for long. The tendency is to create a kind of bull ring in a stadium like Valencia where you can see at least the positions, if not the action, most of the way around the track. Part of this is that you're not going to be able to get the real estate like Spa as a closed circuit because the land is too valuable.
It's kind of like what's happened in stadium jumping for horses. They just keep making the courses more technical and requiring more outrageous sequences of maneuver and it's not the Targa Floria anymore.
MMM: Does that result in more horse or rider injury?
KC: I think probably horses don't last that long at high level competition. Their poor joints, all that whamming and twisting.
Motorcycles are . . . a guy crashes and 20 minutes later you see him on the course again and everything is perfect? They just replace everything that is not as it was. I remember when I first began to see crews wearing these suits of lights and I realized they looked most like the outfits that bicycle racers wore. The pit buildings, the first items that were unloaded were the theatrical flat.
MMM: A couple of questions directly related to Top Dead Center. Out of the five hundred some articles you've written how did you select the fifty-some articles in the book?
KC: My editor, Lee Klancher. Lee has a good editorial eye. It was his idea to group the riders and engineer people and all of that arrangement was his work. I really think it was good because if I had to refer to one of my articles and read through until I found what I needed. And it just seemed like, "Yeah I wrote that back then." It seemed, somehow, more coherent. I quite liked it. It seemed to have acquired something as a whole that it wouldn't have, by any means, in parts; aside from accessibility, and there's a lot to be said for that.
MMM: It's a readable book as a collection of short stories or as a book, from front to back.
KC: Lee is a kind of editorial consultant, now. He used to work for MBI. He's the architect.
MMM: Of the people you wrote about, were there any people you felt almost unprepared to talk to before you interviewed them?
KC: Well certainly, KR. You know you're getting the opportunity to talk to someone who has particularly distinguished himself in this particular way. You want to deserve the confidence that has been placed in you for that. I think what that does is creates a little tingle of fear, which is not a bad thing. If you don't have that little tingle you might begin to wonder if you are going to look at your watch during the interview. And you don't want to do that.
MMM: I'm almost certain that in "Reasons to Romp" I found evidence that you might be a Monty Python fan?
KC: That piece came as a result of a conversation with Big Sid Biberman, the VIncent guy. He talked about Vincents as being these long-legged equestrian wheeled vehicles that allow you to roll through the scenery and not be too athletic about it. I think I decided that was a worthwhile idea because we can't all go to turn 8 at Willow and live there. Years ago, I used to write a lot more stuff about some aspect of shop work or some aspect of that shared life. Sleeping in vans. The night we drove to Detroit, by mistake. That sort of thing. I've got away from that as I've got away from the shop.
MMM: Do you think that's because you've become much more intelligent or just lower energy?
KC: [laughs] I think you get to a point where you can see that your efforts don't tend toward greatly improved results. I could see that, in comparison with Irv Kanemoto, my bikes were going to be also-rans. His understanding is on a much higher level than mine. That's sort of liberating in a way, it gives you something not to strive for. Having a family means that you can't be off to the races. Jerry Burgess has a family in Australia and they simply live that way. He's away in Europe for several months of the year and they've structured their lives to accommodate that. I couldn't and I don't think I would have wanted to.
Irv Kanemoto and I have had conversations in which it's clear that each of us has a certain wistfulness about the direction the other one chose. That's the irreversibility of life.
MMM: You have to pick a path and that means you didn't pick a bunch of other paths.
KC: Steve Whitelock and I, when we were both working on Kawasaki triples liked to imagine vast R&D shops with saluting technicians and rows of milling machines that grew indistinct in the distance. We both love to construct palaces of words and Whitelock went on to become a Honda troublemaker, that's different from a troubleshooter. He was with their motocross team in Frankfurt for years and, then, he was something in international road racing for a long time. Most recently, he was AMA Supercross manager. Before that, he was the tech inspector at World Superbike. He's had an extremely varied career and he's a wonderful talker and just filled with stories. Many of which can't be told to the larger audience.
MMM: I suspect you have a few of those too.
KC: Those guys have been a lot closer to the machinations of the big teams. I get to hear sort of reverberations and whisperings, but they participated.
One of the things that will happen is that someone in a responsible position will tell you things that you can't possibly used. I had that relationship with Gary Mathers and, at the end of one conversation, I said, "Gary, I'm stupefied. There is nothing here I can use." And Gary said, "You'll protect me, I'm sure." Off he went.
Basically, he said if it had been up to him Miguel would have been out in the 90s. Because it became clear that he lacked the concentration to win a championship. He was always going to do something like endo into the bales at the Daytona chicane or keep trying to qualify even though his screen was covered with rain at Louden. And those are the kinds of events that made him furious. At the same time, he was 100% company man and very protective of all the secrets that needed to be kept secret. I think, sometimes, people want you to have the background, even though they know it can't see the light of day.
MMM: Thanks to Martin Belair, I got a chance to interview Martin Lampkin a few years back. When I asked him why there hasn't been a US world trials champ since Bernie Schrieber, he said, "You don't ride enough."
KC: That's always been a problem in the US. The Ontario Speedway near LA, people thought it was going to be a huge success. It just dribbled to a stop. The reason is that nothing outdraws the big town. Too many choices. The notion of driving all the way out to Ontario and baking there . . . forget it. Motor sports on Long Island never got anywhere for the same reason.
MMM: Riverside had some problems for that reason, too.
KC: Yeah, you have to create a kind of cult event, like Laguna is now. People go out there and campout or they stay in the $300 a night hotel and eat and drink expensively. It's of its kind, the same thing that Louden was in the early 70's. It's a gypsy encampment, a defect isolate. Everyone there is on your wavelength. People will pay a lot for such a weekend.
MMM: How do you think Indianapolis will do then?
KC: I don't know. They, supposedly, had less success arm-wrestling paddock passes out of DORNA than at Laguna. I think there is 1200 or 1500 passes. American spectators are accustomed to that kind of access. In Europe, the whole Formula One thing is sort like a black box or a black hole. The Hawking radiation is emitted at the start of the race. The little hole opens, the cars come out, they take their places on the grid, they race, they go back into the hole and close the door. That's all you get. You don't get "I was as close as from me to you and they rolled this thing right past me. Fantastic!" In any NHRA race, you're in amongst them. When a team has to get back to its work area, they have a police car with its siren going that makes a hole through the crowd so they can roll the car back in time to make the next round.
MMM: Have you been to a NASCAR event? Is it the same kind of spectator access?
KC: I haven't. You can see what they've done at Daytona. They've turned it into a theme park. It's uninteresting, if you went in times past. It's well enough suited to the modern spectator. If you go up to one of those windows, look in, tap on the window, and you slide your expensively purchased poster through the poster slot, they scrawl on it, and slide it back out to you, if they choose to. And you can walk along and you can see who has the biggest toolbox on little go-cart wheels.
Every year it used to be more and more annoying at Daytona, with the geriatric cops who would come around at seven and say "You all have to leave." Then it would be six, then five. Because in NASCAR, the cars only have three moving parts and they can change all of them in 12 minutes, so they can get out of the garage quickly. They couldn't see why the bikes wouldn't be the same. Now they have this theme park thing with all the brick and the places to buy beer and posters. I can't say that I'll ever regard it as progress.
MMM: One last question, I saw one piece of evidence in Top Dead Center that you ride motorcycles. Do you still ride motorcycles?
KC: Occasionally, somebody comes to visit with a new bike and I'll find my helmet and have a go. In the 80s, I think I had a Honda Saber, 750, for several months. It was from the magazine, Cycle, and I rode it to Boston a few times because I was building exhaust pipes for somebody in that way. Normally, if I drove in my van, I'd be behind sixteen cars and there would be a motor home at the front or a local farmer, on two-lane highway. On a motorcycle, you can pass them all in an instant and see the needle come back past 100 as you pull into your own lane. I thought "that's thrilling, but I'm not a god. I could kill myself, this way." It was wonderful to just burst past those motor homes or the local farmer who has been driving at this speed since 1927.
"I think somebody like Paul Dean, who has ridden every day of his life is very much safer than someone who rides now and then. Like flying.
"I never had any interest in adding my penetrating insight from the saddle, because I did a little racing but I never got to be any use at it. And I don't think there is any point in confusing myself with such information. I can get information from people who know. Of course, a little motorcycle is looking pretty attractive with $4 gas.
MMM: You'd kind of hope someone might bring a little motorcycle over here, occasionally.
KC: Well, it hasn't happened. I had lots of motorcycles, years ago; some considerable variety. The more I got involved in the construction, the less interesting it seemed to actually ride them.
MMM: There are certainly lots of racers who don't ride anywhere outside of a race track.
KC: Freddy didn't have a driver's license for a long time, until Kawasaki gave him a Z1, I think, after the '78 season. He had to get a driver's license so he could drive. Then, he was appalled. He said, "People really ride these things?"
M MM: He'd have loved a cruiser, wouldn't he?
KC: Oh my god. But, we're used to what we're used to.