If loving motorcycles — and Harley’s in particular — is a hereditary trait, I guess you could say I came by my infatuation honestly. My dad was a mechanic and I grew up surrounded by disassembled machines, frames hanging from the garage ceiling and the intoxicating aroma of half-filled oil pans. My dad had bikes around our property before I was born, and he actually dabbled with open wheel racing with the United States Auto Club.
Dad never owned a bike when I was growing up, but back in the early ’70s, at the impressionable age of 14, he helped me pick out a 1968 Montgomery Wards Riverside 250 Street bike and take it home. I started tinkering with the bike when it developed some shifting problems, and I ended up taking it apart and putting it back together about a million times over that summer. About that same time, my folks took me to a drive-in theater to watch a double feature of Evil Knievel and The Hard Ride. That night I announced to my folks I was gonna get me a bike like that!
After that, I was almost always elbow-deep in grease. I had a passion for working with fast engines and I wanted to be the fastest guy out there. I read everything I could get my hands on about engines, and not just motorcycle engines. Anything that made power was going to get my close scrutiny, including hot-rodding. If it made a vroom sound, I made it my mission to get it to run better and faster.
As soon as I turned 18, I purchased my first Harley. Not just any Harley, mind you, but an 86-cubic-inch stroker 1956 Panhead. First time behind the handlebars, I remember dumping the clutch and hanging on for dear life as my new bike plowed through a hedge alongside the garage of the guy I just bought it from. After regained control —and a modicum of dignity — I rode around the block with mixed emotions — sheer terror replaced by intense joy.
That Pan and I pretty much covered all of creation, including a three-day ride from Chicago out to Los Angeles. That’s right. Three days, and I’ll tell you, my butt was sore for a week. My Harley joined me when I joined the Marine Corps, and it seems that bike was always getting me in trouble with one commander or another. When I got out of the Corps, I qualified for vocational rehabilitation with the Veterans Administration.
I was working as a truck mechanic at the time and I told the VA I’d love to enroll in the Motorcycle Mechanics Institute (MMI) in Phoenix, Ariz. Once there, I was certain that I knew everything there was to know and the course would be a breeze. Wrong! I had to relearn everything I thought I knew, and ended up getting the best education anywhere. A few years later, it was payback time, and I was asked to go back and teach at MMI. For three years, I passed on what I’d learned to a new crop of students. And one of my favorite thrills is when I pick up the phone and it’s a former student checking up on me.
Next on my list of go fast projects, was to build a turbo-charged 1954 Panhead, a bike that had such incredible acceleration that I found myself constantly outriding the triple-disc brakes. In a moment of clarity, I came to the realization that I’d have to take this bike off the streets before I killed myself. That’s when I became a regular at El Mirage dry lake bed in the Mojave Desert, attempting to get that Pan into the record books. Then it was off to the Bonneville Salt Flats, where I became addicted to sodium. I still have that addiction. And while I never quite made it into the record books with that bike, I sure had a huge amount of fun trying.
It’s this madness for motors and motorcycles that influenced my participation in the J&P Cycles’ Express Streamliner land-speed record attempt team. A highlight was in 2006 when we set an AMA national record at Bonneville with a speed of 180.496 kilometers and 178.945 mph in the S/PG class. Believe me when I say that working with the Streamliner at this particular time in my life is one of the highlights of my career. For more information, visit my Bonneville Blog.