We Gotta Get Out While We’re Young, ’cause Tramps Like Us, Baby, We Were Born to Run

I talk about our motorcycles like everyone grew up on a motocross track. I realize not everyone does, but I spent my preschool years playing beside motocross tracks and in bike shops.

Motocross began in Europe in the 1920s. The name basically means ‘cross-country motorcycling.” Dirt bike motorcycle competitions were happening in the US in the form of Scrambles and Enduros by the 1950s.  A scramble is a race run in laps around a closed course over rough terrain. The race track isn’t uniformly flat or smooth and its width varies according to the terrain. Because the scrambles are for dirt bikes and not street bikes, the obstacles on the track tend to be more ‘nature’-based: rock and gravel pits, sand traps, mud puddles, creeks with running water, trees and logs, hills. The events are usually timed lap races; whoever completes the most laps in a set amount of time is the winner.

Enduros are time-keeping races where each rider must arrive at several checkpoints according to a schedule. Early and late arrivals both earn penalties. Enduros are also run on a rugged terrain track, but the point is to maintain strict control over how fast you are going. Enduros can last for hours or days. 

Scramble track

Motocross races are much like scrambles, just with more regulated obstacles: lines of bumps called ‘whoops,’  lots and lots of jumps, and some rail berms, which are like quarter pipes made of dirt to bank over on your bike. All on a uniformly wide dirt track. The American Motorcycle Association sanctioned motocross as a sport in 1959. Even prior to that, dirt bike enthusiasts were setting up their own tracks all over the country. Evel Knievel began his motorcycle stunt career by racing on the motocross circuits. The first American Motorcycle Association Motocross Championship was held in 1972.

Not Don and Jeanette’s, but I can smell this picture.

When Joyce and Larry married in 1963, Larry was already in the US Air Force, stationed at Whiteman Air Force Base near Knob Noster, Missouri. Knob Noster is a tiny little town with a population of less than 3000. The nearest city is Sedalia, with a population of around 20,000. At some point during that first year of marriage, Larry decided he wanted a motorcycle. There were no dealerships in Knob Noster, so they traveled to Sedalia, where they met Don and Jeanette. Don and Jeanette were from Sweet Springs, Missouri, and had just opened up a motorcycle dealership. I can’t remember whether the dealership was in Sedalia or Sweet Springs–I wasn’t even in kindergarten when we met Don and Jeanette. I don’t know if I ever even knew the name of their store. But I do remember how the shop smelled: oil and gasoline, rubber and metal. And I remember what seemed to be vast rows of millions of motorcycles parked side by side, front tires cocked to the left.

Hodaka Super Rat

Don and Jeanette specialized in Hodaka motorcycles. Hodaka was a Japanese and American company that made dirt bikes from 1964 to 1978; Hodaka motorcycles are credited with starting the trail bike craze. Don and Jeanette were leaders of the dirt-bike community in the area; Don raced and Jeanette organized. Don and Larry hit it off immediately. Don not only sold Larry his first bike, he agreed to sponsor Larry in his first scrambles until Larry could afford the fees on his own. When Joyce and Jeanette met each other, they became fast friends too.

Hodaka Combat Wombat

Larry’s first bike was a Hodaka Super Rat, but later he traded it for a Hodaka Combat Wombat. With the Wombat, Larry began placing and even winning races. When I was born, I joined Larry and Joyce at the track–Larry raced almost every weekend from May to October, traveling around Missouri to compete. After Tonia was born, Joyce got a Hodaka Dirt Squirt and began racing too. Tonia and I were given rides on the motorcycles all the time. 

Hodaka Dirt Squirt

Not to belabor the point, but Tonia and I were both small for our age. As adults Tonia grew almost two inches taller than me, putting her right at five feet. We were far too small to ride on the back of a motorcycle and be trusted to hang on. So we rode in front of Larry and Joyce, sitting on the gas tank, holding onto the crossbar on the handlebars. Helmets didn’t come in our size, but Joyce and Larry tried. Our first helmet was a vintage thing they found somewhere and bought because it was small. Then Larry went over a jump with Tonia on the gas tank in front of him. When he landed, her head fell forward and she got a bloody nose by hitting the crossbar with her face.

Hodaka Ace Bonanza mini-bike

Joyce was pissed; it was a stupid thing to do. What was he thinking, jumping with a kid on the bike? Larry bought us a new hemet, the smallest one he could find that you could snap a face shield to. I remember the chinstrap didn’t even touch our chin when it was fastened; our heads were far up inside the helmet. We had to hold our heads if we wanted to look up or to the side, otherwise our heads just slid around inside the helmet. No more bloody noses. Thankfully we never had to find out what happens to a head inside of a helmet that doesn’t fit upon impact with the ground.

Our first helmet looked an awful lot like this.

By the time Sean was born, Joyce and Larry had shelves full of motocross trophies. The only logical next step was to teach us kids to ride so we could join the pee wee events. The first bike I ever owned was a motorcycle: a Hodaka Ace Bonanza mini-bike. My feet didn’t reach the ground. But I could shift gears with my toes, so as long as someone got me started and was there to catch me when I stopped, I could putter around the field beside the track. Larry showed me how to lay the bike down without getting my legs caught underneath the bike in case I had to stop without being near someone to catch me. I was never going to break any speed records. Since I couldn’t reach the ground, I was afraid to get going, unsure of my ability to lay her down if I was traveling fast.

The ‘safer’ helmet

I was too young to get a license, so my cool bike was kind of useless to me when I wanted to ride bikes around the neighborhood with my friends. Tonia and I were given the choice of keeping our Hodaka or selling it to buy bicycles. I’m pretty sure Larry hoped we’d choose the Hodaka–he probably had hopes of a wall full of trophies for his kids. Tonia and I chose matching blue Schwinns with banana seats, sissy bars, and ape-hanger handlebars. They were 3-speeds, with streamers on the hand grips and flowery baskets on the front. As a bonus, Sean got a big wheel. Our motocross careers were over before Sean was ever even allowed on the mini-bike.

It’s just missing the streamers and the basket.

After we moved to Montana, Joyce never raced again, what with Tonia getting run over and then Joyce falling into a depressive episode that lasted about a year. Larry continued racing. Only now we traveled around Montana to get to events. Larry took up hunting and fishing and raced less often which led to him winning less often. He traded the Wombat for a Green Hodaka Road Toad. That bike traveled with us to Minot, where it sat in the garage until it was traded for a cruiser. That was a Yamaha, but I don’t know any more about it except that it was maroon.

Hodaka Road Toad

Weird side note: I don’t remember ever having a problem balancing on the mini-bike; I could keep it upright with no trouble. But when it came time to learn to ride a bicycle, I had a hard time finding my balance. It was like I was perfectly fine until I started to pedal. When I pedaled, I wobbled all over the place and fell over in no time at all. I finally got it. But anyone who’s seen me on my bike will tell you: I still wobble all over the place.

A few years ago my son bought me a really nice bike and had it custom fitted to me. It was very weird to ride at first. I’d never rode a bike where I wasn’t pedaling with my toes on the end of a super-extended leg at the bottom of the rotation.

Sean on his Big Wheel

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