Doc Batsleer and more than 400 others raced their old motorcycles in the Barber Vintage Festival in October. A couple of road racing newbies were overwhelmed by the scene. From the January 2009 issue of Road Racing World magazine.
The perfect dream wouldn’t last long.
But over filet mignon and bottomless glasses of wine at a private “Motorcycles at Moonlight Dinner” inside the sparkling Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum in Birmingham, Ala., nothing unpleasant intruded—not the deepening global economic crisis, not the virulent fall elections, not any of the complications that crowd motorcycles into a cramped corner called “recreation.”
Surrounded by more than 1,000 vintage bikes, about two hundred racers and other classic-motorcycle nuts sat at table sponsored by a couple dozen well-heeled patrons. The fingernails were clean, the spirits were high and the talk, on the eve of the fifth annual Barber Vintage Festival in October, was increasingly big.
“I’m kind of the king of Mid-Ohio,” Doc Batsleer was explaining to a freelance writer and a photographer who’d crashed the party and gorged themselves at a table sponsored by a BMW dealer named Bob.
They had confessed to Batsleer that they’d never covered any kind of motorcycle race before, and he was in the process of taking them under his venerable wing, explaining the phenomenon and the state of vintage racing by describing his own place in it.
The 64-year-old racer modulated his boasts—in addition to his status as Mid-Ohio royalty, Batsleer also pointed out he’s a three-time Daytona winner—with humility that seemed not forced as much as well-practiced: “I’m just a mid-pack racer who’s been riding forever.”
Forty-two years to be exact. Which didn’t exactly set Batsleer apart in this crowd. Someone adroitly summed up the whole scene at Barber as “60 year-old guys on 40-year-old bikes.” Give or take a decade or two, that about sums it up.
Asked what it is he can’t do now on a motorcycle that he could when he started racing as a young man, Batsleer seemed genuinely stumped for an answer, finally saying, “I still crash and I still get hurt. I don’t have fear. I’m still good. I still do the best I can with what I’ve got.”
The next morning, Batsleer’s limitations would show themselves. But tonight he was suavely introducing the greenhorn journalists to racing legend Jeff Smith and other vintage-racing muckety-mucks. Everybody was eager to explain the vintage racing phenomenon to anyone who they thought could give it some much-needed publicity.
Batsleer, who pulls his bikes around the American Historical Racing Motorcycle Association circuit on a trailer behind his capped pick-up truck that doubles as a bedroom and kitchen—he packs his food in a cooler and cooks it on a Coleman stove—called sponsorship “nonexistent” for vintage racers.
Of his financial prospects at the Barber Vintage Festival, Batsleer said, “If I win everything it’ll only cost me the $2,000 I’ve spent for gas and entry fees and a cooler of beer.” But the plaque he’d get for winning—“particle-board” though it may be—would be worth a lot to Batsleer.
The conversation went deep into the night—maybe a little too deep for the journalists, who, still damp from their own rain-battered motorcycle ride from the North (on a 1965 Triumph TR-6 and a 2006 Scrambler), wandered away from the party. As they noisily fawned over the museum’s collection of bikes nearly to the point of licking the tanks, they were only dimly aware of a Barber guard who’d apparently, and understandably, been assigned specifically to them.
At 7:15 Saturday morning, the two sat with throbbing heads and pounding hearts, each on one of Batsleer’s Indian Scouts, 1934 and 1935. The night before, he’d promised them a chance to ride the ancient racers, assuring them that the “suicide-shifter” was melodramatically named—while simultaneously warning them to put the bike in neutral if they came to a stop because a foot could easily come off the clutch. “That’s when you take somebody out.”
Now, over the rich, raw, blabbing engines, he told them to ease out of pit row and ride the long perimeter of the Barber track “at a sporting pace,” adding that riding too slow would “fuck up the bikes.”
They did not fuck up the bikes.
Batsleer’s generosity with his motorcycles, connected to his obvious interest in being written about, was only the beginning of his undoing on Saturday, and the first of several signs that age is creeping up on him as he approaches the finish line.
One of the Indians quit on him on the first turn of a practice lap because he’d forgotten to gas it up. He had to be towed back to the pits, muttering about how he’d gotten “out of my routine.”
He missed another practice run entirely because his faulty ears—a common malady for the vintage racers; sound-worn ears aren’t as easily rebuilt as weary piston rings—failed to pick up the announcement over the loudspeaker.
Then on the first of his two races on Saturday—the pre-1940 class, which offered his best chance of winning—he fouled a cylinder during a delay at the starting line. “My first did-not-start in 20 years,” he grumbled back at the pits, where he barked orders and reprimands to his two-man volunteer crew. “This charge was on six volts. It must be on 12. Check it!”
By mid-morning Saturday, perhaps it was crossing Batsleer’s mind that an honest article about his performance so far might be headlined, “The World’s Slowest Indian.”
In any case, Batsleer’s pit was becoming a slightly less hospitable place as he put on his “race face” and prepared for his second contest, in the afternoon.
Happily, Barber is indeed a festival, and there was plenty to see beyond the paddocks. The trials competition in the forest Friday had been a trial just to get to, across the muddy field above the track and down into the hilly woods. On Saturday, those woods were drying in the dappled sun and cross-country racers roto-tilled the trails with their furious tires.
A quarter mile around Barber’s sloping, turning, pleasantly wooded track was a teeming flee market, and not far from that was a vintage motorcycle show. Everywhere the mood was laid back; laughing and yarn-spinning overwhelmed hard-core bartering and preening.
Before lunch, there was the “century race,” where the wheezing pre-1909 models duked it out for a single, marathon lap around the 2.4-mile Barber track. Those late-model 1908s were smoked by Dennis McCarthy, who got around first on his 1905 Puegot.
And after lunch, an air show, four WW-II era AT-6s filling the air with the only sound louder than motorcycle engines.
But the loudest sound of all had be the human bellowing during a lunchtime town-hall meeting conducted in pit row by the leaders of AHRMA, who had to report to an already edgy mob of 100-plus members that a computer error had caused inaccuracies in the membership list. Instead of the 6,300 members they’d previously reported the list having risen to, membership had actually dropped nine percent, from 5,750 at this time last year to 5,250 as of October of 2008.
“Let’s please keep it civil, okay?” was how AHRMA co-founder Will Harding opened the Q&A part of the meeting, which predictably focused on the very same Jeff Smith who had entertained the pair of journalists at the sparkling party the evening before. Now in the harsh noonday sun, angry attendees expressed fresh outrage in the ongoing controversy about why the racing legend was still treasurer of AHRMA after having resigned and then un-resigned amid a hopeless tangle accusations.
Smith, however, wasn’t there. After riding his bike in the Hare Scrambles race on Saturday morning, he reported feeling numbness on his left side—he’d suffered a stroke some months before—and was in the hospital, a fact that didn’t begin to quell the angry crowd, some of whom remarked that the timing of Smith’s apparent relapse, only hours before the town hall meeting, was fortunate. (AHRMA executive director Cindy Cowell told Roadracing World that Smith “was well when I saw him on Monday at the board meeting.” Smith’s wife Irene later told Road Racing World that Smith had suffered a mini-stroke, and though he indeed attended the Monday meeting, had since had surgery to bore out his clogged carotid artery.)
Put it this way: The meeting didn’t exactly calm the crowd. By the end, probably the only thing the AHRMA crowd shared was what all AHRMA members probably share: a common desire to get back to the racing.
True to his self-portrait as a mid-pack racer, Doc Batsleer finished fourth out of seven in his the “Class-C Handshift” race Saturday afternoon. The winner was Kyle Corser, riding a 1951 Harley; Batsleer’s bike was the oldest of the seven.
But back in the pits, Batsleer’s mood wasn’t much improved after he peeled off his leathers and cracked open a can of Milwaukee’s Best, only to have one of those ignorant journalists remark that it didn’t look like the Indian was leaning over as far on Turn 5 as the other bikes were.
This set him off in a controlled rant about how some racers—and he walked over to another bike to show an example—have replaced the old front-fork spring with a modern shock absorber. He said the lean he puts on his Indian is a “true lean,” and after showing his worn riding boot, he tipped the bike over to show how far he’d had to lean the bike.
Furious at AHRMA for allowing “cheaters” to replace springs with shocks on safety grounds—“if it’s a safety issue, then you must mandate it!”—Batsleer said he takes refuge in his old-school code: “I will not bend my honor.”
His springs will stay. And he will struggle to stay in the middle of the pack. (On Sunday, Batsleer would last, and second to last in reruns of his two classes.)
Saturday morning, Batsleer had been trying to talk the AHRMA officials into letting the eager journalists out on the racetrack on the Indians, but as the sun sank in the afternoon, it seemed everyone was losing interest. After a long night, it had been a long day—and, for Batsleer, a difficult one.
He needed some rest and the journalists needed one more tour of the Barber museum—with more than 1,200 motorcycles, the place highlights the bright line between awe-inspiring and obscene—before taking off early Sunday on our own motorcycle race north, back to the devil of a world we know.
What was our hurry?